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Mayoral race one for history books; will turnout be headline or footnote?

Mayor Martin Kennelly, left, shakes hands with former Mayor Edward J. Kelly, right, as they arrive in Philadelphia for the 1947 Democratic National Convention. Sun-Times File Photo.

Mayor Martin Kennelly, left, shakes hands with former Mayor Edward J. Kelly, right, as they arrive in Philadelphia for the 1947 Democratic National Convention. Sun-Times File Photo.

We’ve only done this three times in the past century.

Chicago has had just three open-seat mayoral contests over the past 100 years.

The election Feb. 26 will be No. 4.

And while this is only the fourth Chicago mayoral election in the last century with no incumbent seeking re-election — it’s only the second since the city instituted nonpartisan mayoral elections in the 1990s.

Whether the excitement of choosing a new mayor from among the 14 men and women pitching for the job will translate into a stampede of voters rushing to the polls is anybody’s guess.

“We’re getting really mixed signals from the voters,” said Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. “Virtually no one is using early voting, although it’s just the downtown super site right now. But we’re looking at a record for a city election for vote-by-mail.”

“That tells us a lot of voters have not made up their minds, but are signing up to be ready when they do.”

Allen declined to make any predictions about turnout.

And history isn’t much help.

The 1947 election to choose a successor to longtime Mayor Edward Kelly recorded the fifth-highest turnout for all Chicago mayoral elections over the past 72 years, the only period for which figures are available.

A whopping 70.31 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots on April 1, 1947, electing Martin Kennelly mayor, the Democratic Machine’s choice after Kelly was persuaded that his time had past.

Cook County Democratic Chairman Jake Arvey, center, sits between the party’s chosen mayoral candidate — Martin Kennelly, left — and the incumbent he dumped — Mayor Edward J. Kelly, right — in 1947. Also pictured is Joseph T. Baran, Democratic candidate for city treasurer, top row, second from left. Sun-Times file photo.

Cook County Democratic Chairman Jake Arvey, center, sits between the party’s chosen mayoral candidate — Martin Kennelly, left — and the incumbent he dumped — Mayor Edward J. Kelly, right — in 1947. Also pictured is Joseph T. Baran, Democratic candidate for city treasurer, top row, second from left. Sun-Times file photo.

But the 2011 election that saw Rahm Emanuel chosen to succeed retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley brought out only 42.3 percent of the electorate, ranking the February contest No. 27 among the 45 mayoral and aldermanic elections held since 1947, according to Chicago Board of Election Commissioners records.

Turnout figures were not available for the other open seat mayoral election, the 1923 contest that 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.

Mayor William Hale Thompson, right, pets Dan and Teddy, veteran fire horses, at a farewell party in1923 at fire company no. 11, at 10 E. Austin. The Chicago Fire Department went to motorized equipment that year, and Thompson had decided not to seek re-election, although he would launch a successful comeback four years later. File Photo.

Mayor William Hale Thompson, right, pets Dan and Teddy, veteran fire horses, at a farewell party in 1923. The Chicago Fire Department went to motorized equipment that year, and Thompson had decided not to seek re-election. File Photo.

Judging turnout from the past is further complicated by changes in the election process. Chicago only began holding nonpartisan mayoral elections in 1999. Before that, party primaries were held in February, with the winners facing one another in April. It varied over time which was more important for voters, the primary or general election, depending on whether the parties were competitive.

And under the nonpartisan system, the mayoral candidates only advance to an April runoff if no one wins a majority in February. That only happened once in the five nonpartisan mayoral elections since 1999. And the 2015 runoff between Emanuel and challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia only drew 41.10 percent of the voters, ranking it No. 31 among the 45 mayoral and aldermanic contests since 1947.

Outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley speaks at Rahm Emanuel's 2011 Inauguration at Millennium Park. File Photo. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

Outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley speaks at Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 Inauguration at Millennium Park. File Photo. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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.

Cook County Circuit Judge Charles E. Freeman swears in Harold Washington as Chicago s 42nd mayor at Navy Pier on April 29, 1983. Outgoing Mayor Jane Byrne is at right Historic moment. | Sun-Times Library

Cook County Circuit Judge Charles E. Freeman swears in Harold Washington as Chicago’s 42nd mayor at Navy Pier in 1983. Outgoing Mayor Jane Byrne is at right. | Sun-Times Library

Washington was a magnet for voters, whether they supported him or wanted to oust him.

He was on the ballot in each of the top four elections for turnout. The 1983 Democratic Primary saw a turnout of 77.49 percent, when Washington beat incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and challenger Richard M. Daley. Four years later, 75.58 percent turned out for the primary rematch between Mayor Harold Washington and now challenger Jane Byrne, and Lyndon LaRouche candidate Sheila Jones, and 74.08 percent for the general election battle of Washington, Republican Donald Haider and Illinois Solidarity candidate Edward R. Vrdolyak.

No matter what the turnout this year, the candidates would be wise to heed Washington’s famous warning: “Let’s not be overconfident, we still have to count the votes.”

The message from Chicago election officials is to vote now — early voting sites open across the city on Monday — to avoid your chosen candidate failing to make the runoff.

“We’re cautioning Chicago voters: Your vote counts now,” Allen said. “If your worried about a candidate not making it into the second round, you don’t want to wake up on Feb. 27th to find out he or she was the third choice . . . losing out a chance at the runoff by 400 votes.

“Your vote counts now.”