With the Chicago mayoral race in voters’ hands, the outcome might not be known for days

With nine candidates and mail-in ballots still arriving, it could take a while to declare the top finishers.

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Last-minute early voters on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023 at the Loop Supersite polling place.

Last-minute early voters cast ballots Monday at the Loop Super Site polling place operated by the Chicago Election Board.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Complete coverage of the local and national primary and general election, including results, analysis and voter resources to keep Chicago voters informed.

After months of campaigning and more than $24 million in spending, the decision on who will lead Chicago for the next four years is finally in the hands of voters.

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An April 4 mayoral runoff is virtually guaranteed. A nine-candidate field is almost certain to prevent any one candidate from receiving more than 50% of the vote.

It’s even possible the two mayoral finalists won’t be known for a few days, as mail-in ballots are still being counted. The same is true for most, if not all, the hotly contested aldermanic races.

The high probability for delayed results stems from the number of mail-ballots.

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners processed 214,000 vote-by-mail applications, but only 102,000 of those ballots had been returned as of noon Monday.

Roughly 20,000 were expected to be returned at drop-boxes on Monday, according to board spokesperson Max Bever. And all mail ballots received by 7 p.m. Monday — either by mail or returned at one of 52 drop boxes at early voting sites — will be counted on election night, he said.

That leaves 80,000 to 90,000 vote-by-mail ballots that won’t be immediately reflected in election night results.

Technically, the election board will count all mail ballots it receives by March 14, if they were postmarked by Election Day. That’s also the cutoff to count provisional ballots cast by voters who went to the wrong precinct.

A drop box for collecting Chicago mail-in ballots.

A drop box for collecting Chicago mail-in ballots. With tens of thousands of such mail ballots not returned as of Monday afternoon, it’s possible the candidates in the April 4 mayoral runoff may not be confirmed for days.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The official proclamation of winners comes right after that.

Chicagoans shouldn’t have to wait that long to identify combatants in the April 4 mayoral runoff. But if the margin between the second- and third-place finishers is close, it still will take days to decide the runoff contenders.

“It may take until this weekend to get the majority of the vote-by-mail ballots counted and those votes reflected in the results,” Bever said.

“The citywide campaign may not need to wait around for the extra 200 or 300 votes to be counted,” he said. “They’re probably just looking for the majority of that vote by mail. We’ll get those over the next three to four days after election night. That generally happens by that Saturday or Sunday after the election.”

But in some City Council races, a winner might not be decided until after March 14, “because those races are much, much closer” with margins “into the double-digits or the single-digits,” said Bever.

Lee Walker votes Monday, Feb. 27, 2023 at the Loop Super Site at 191 N. Clark St.

Lee Walker votes Monday at the Loop Super Site at 191 N. Clark St.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Vote-by-mail ballots normally break in roughly “the same spread that we see on election night,” Bever said.

That means it’ll be up to the individual mayoral candidates to decide whether to declare victory, concede the race or hold out for a majority of vote-by-mail results.

“It really depends citywide, how close those races are. But we know this affects much more of the alderperson races. Those races are much closer. ... I have a feeling that many of those campaigns will probably want to wait almost until the official proclamation ... to make their concession,” he said.

Overall, by Sunday night, 211,110 Chicagoans had already cast their ballots — 82,167 voters more than had done so at this point in the last election cycle, thanks to a fourfold increase in voting by mail.

Political observers are divided on whether that signals a surge in voter interest and higher voter turnout or simply a change in the way people vote because of the convenience of early voting.

Bever said he has his fingers crossed for a higher turnout than the 35.4% for the 2019 mayoral and aldermanic elections and the 34% in 2015.

In last year’s primary and general election, he noted, 25% of voters cast ballots by mail, 25% vote early in person, and the rest wait until Election Day.

“If that trend holds, we could be much further ahead of the turnout we saw in 2019 and 2015, and possibly even more than 2011, when we had a 42% turnout,” he said.

Antonio Reed, 32, of Englewood, scans his completed ballot on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023 at the Loop Super Site, 191 N. Clark St.

Antonio Reed, 32, of Englewood, scans his completed ballot on Monday at the Loop Super Site.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Driving voter interest is 40 contested races for a City Council in transition.

The 5th and 6th Wards, with retiring incumbents, have 11 candidates each. The 48th Ward has 10 rivals for an open seat. The 21st Ward has seven candidates and no incumbent. Nine incumbents are running unopposed. And the 44th Ward, where incumbent Tom Tunney is retiring, has one candidate: Tunney’s longtime chief of staff, Bennett Lawson.

Under Chicago’s new civilian oversight structure, three seats are being decided for each of 22 police district councils. The Englewood, Deering, Austin, Jefferson Park and Rogers Park districts each have seven candidates vying for three seats.

The Calumet, Gresham and Shakespeare police districts all have qualified write-in candidates after fewer than three candidates filed petitions. If any of those candidates gets at least one vote, they win a seat on their district council — and a measure of electoral fame.

“It’ll be the first time in Chicago history that a municipal candidate wins in a write-in,” Bever said.

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