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Voter turnout might set record low

Voters of the 5th ward voting Tuesday at O'Keefe Elementary School. | Rick Majewski/For the SunTimes

Despite the mild weather and the allure of taking part in a historic election, voter turnout was expected to be near a record low for a Chicago mayoral election.

With about half the city’s precincts reporting an hour after polls closed at 7 p.m. — voter turnout was 16 percent. Chicago Board of Election Commissioners spokesman Jim Allen expected the remaining half of votes to account for about another 16 percent. And mail-in ballots tallied post-Election Day usually account for about one percent, he said — bringing the expected voter turnout to about 33 percent.

As of 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, with 97.39 percent of precincts reporting, voter turnout was 31.35 percent.

The record low turnout in a mayoral election that was set in 2007 when just 33.08 percent of voters cast ballots in the contest that saw then Mayor Richard M. Daley be re-elected to his sixth term.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Allen said when asked if he expected a new record to low turnout.

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Turnout in the February election that featured 14 candidates and elevated Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle into Tuesday’s runoff was 35.45 percent.

Hope that whittling the confusing candidate field to only two options would bring out voters in droves proved wishful thinking.

Tuesday’s contest was only the second mayoral runoff in city history.

The first one occurred in 2015 after a 34.03 percent turnout in the first round of voting sent Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Rahm Emanuel into a runoff that drew 41.10 percent of the electorate.

The highest turnout for any Chicago mayoral race?

The modern record was set in 1983, when a whopping 82.07 percent of voters turned out to elect Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor over Republican Bernie Epton.

The surge in voter participation was partially fueled by racial tension.

Powerful Democratic Ald. Ed Vrdolyak, at the time, described the election as “a racial thing, don’t kid yourselves.”

One slogan embraced used by Washington’s opponents: “Epton, before it’s too late.”

Also noteworthy, the latest mayoral election was only the fourth Chicago mayoral election in a century without an incumbent seeking re-election.

The last one – in 2011 – saw Emanuel chosen to succeed retiring Daley in a contest that brought out 42.3 percent of the electorate, according to election records.

The other two open races were in 1947 and 1923.

The 1923 contest went up for grabs when incumbent Republican Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson opted to sit out after scandals made him too hot for the ballot box. The confidante of Al Capone would make a comeback four years later, but that’s another story.

Chicago began holding nonpartisan mayoral elections in 1999 — before that, party primaries were held.