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Election board officials openly discuss nightmare scenario in mayoral race

Voting stations at a Chicago polling place

Officials warned Monday that the number of mail-in and absentee ballots could be enough to leave the outcome of Tuesday’s election in doubt. | Getty Images

With 31,000 mail-in ballots not yet returned, Chicago election officials on Monday talked openly about a nightmare scenario that suddenly looks real: a mayoral election so close, it drags on for days and even includes a possible recount.

Election Board spokesman Jim Allen is not predicting that will happen. But he’s at least acknowledging that possibility with 62,671 mail-in ballots requested, only 31,000 returned and a crowded field of 14 mayoral candidates that has left voters confused.

Mail-in ballots can be counted later, so long as they are postmarked on Tuesday — or even Wednesday, if they were mailed on election day.

If the margin separating the top few finishers is smaller than the number of outstanding ballots, we may not know until days or even weeks after Tuesday’s election which candidates will advance to the April 2 runoff.

That’s particularly true if the results show a candidate within 5 percentage points of the top two finishers and that candidate exercises their right to a discovery recount of as many as 25 percent of the precincts of his or her own choosing.

“We’re counting and processing all the way through the 12th of March,” Allen said Monday.

“Then somebody who’s within 95 percent of, let’s say the second-place finisher in a three-way contest could file for discovery recount, and possibly pursue litigation even though we’re gonna have to move ahead and start printing and programming for early voting that presumably starts as early as March 18.”

Allen was speaking at a news conference at the Loop super-site for early voting at 175 W. Washington.

Election Board Chair Marisel Hernandez acknowledged that it “could be very close,” adding, “Chicago has never had an election like this and we may never see one like it again.”

Marisel Hernandez

Marisel Hernandez, chair of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, urged voters holding mail-in ballots to take no chances and send them without delay or bring them to the polls on Tuesday. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Hernandez urged voters with mail-in ballots that have not yet been returned to take no chances.

Either fill them out immediately and take them to the post office to be postmarked or, better yet, take the mail-in ballot to any one of 51 early voting sites and cast your vote in-person.

“I want the voters of Chicago to express themselves as to who they want as mayor. I don’t want a razor-thin margin between second- and third-place candidates,” she said.

Although voter registration is up by 160,000 compared to four years ago, Hernandez acknowledged many Chicago voters who asked for mail-in ballots may never return them while others don’t bother showing up to vote on Tuesday.

They might be so confused by the crowded field, they’re waiting until April 2, when the field will be narrowed to two.

“That’s my concern. People cannot wait until the run-off on April 2nd. You have to make your voices heard and express who will be the top two candidates in any one of these elections. It’s just as important as the April 2nd runoff,” she said.

“You don’t want to be one of the people who wakes up on Wednesday morning and says, `I can’t believe Candidate X is the first or second one on the ballot.’ Well, did you vote? We all need to vote to have our voices heard.”

More voters have used the combination of vote-by-mail and early voting than in any other February municipal election in Chicago history.

As of Monday, more than 63,000 people applied to vote by mail. That’s compared to 24,000 in 2015 and 22,000 in 2011. With one day of early voting remaining, more than 95,000 people had already cast ballots in person. That’s compared to 90,000 in 2015 and 73,000 in 2011.

More than 1.58 million Chicagoans are registered to vote, thanks largely to a surge of sign-ups prior to the mid-term elections that saw Republicans lose control of the U.S. House and former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner defeated by Democrat J.B. Pritzker.

The top ward in the city for early voting participation is the 19th, home to mayoral candidate Jerry Joyce. As of Monday, 5,184 people there already had voted.

The next four wards at the top: the 41st, 47th, 45th and 4th; the 4th Ward is the home base of mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle. All of the top five wards have more than 2,800 early votes.

The bottom five wards for early voting: 40th, 49th, 8th, 33rd and 25th. All five each have fewer than 541 early voters.