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Early voting up, but jury out on what it means

So far, early voting is nearly double what it was before the February election  — and while the two mayoral candidates became part of that rush on Thursday, they couldn’t agree on what the rise in early balloting means.

Election Board spokesman Jim Allen cautioned reporters not to “read too much” into the wave of early voting.

“The wild card here for us is Passover, Easter, spring break. Is this a big chunk of what we’re gonna get? Or is this just a taste of what we’re gonna get? Is this gonna represent 24 percent of the overall vote or 18 percent of the overall vote? Nobody knows,” Allen said.

Through the close of business Wednesday, 100,976 Chicagoans had cast early ballots, nearly double the 51,245 early votes that had been cast at this point before the Feb. 24 election.

The Northwest Side’s 41st Ward leads the city with 5,094 early votes, apparently fueled by an aldermanic runoff and by noise-weary residents who have accused Mayor Rahm Emanuel of turning a deaf ear to their complaints about O’Hare Airport noise. The top five wards also include the 19th (4,780); the 45th (3,208); the 18th (2,954) and the 47th (2,950).

The 45th and 18th have hotly contested aldermanic runoffs.

“I feel really positive about the early vote,” challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia said after casting his ballot Thursday morning in Piotrowski Park . “I feel it favors my candidacy.”

Garcia, however, did say that lackluster voter turnout in wards with a large population of Hispanics might occur because they are relative newcomers to politics.

“I think Latino voters are some of the newer participants in the electoral process,” Garcia explained. “They’re not as seasoned and experienced as other communities because they became citizens not that long ago.”

He still, however, expects strong turnout on Tuesday.

“I think a lot of it has to do with tradition. I myself had to force myself to early vote today. I wanted to do it on election day myself because I’m sort of old school, so I think some of it comes down to that,” he said.

“I do anticipate a much better turnout, a much heavier turnout on election day. I predict there will be lines between the hours of 3 and 7 p.m. That’s when people get out of work. These are working-class communities. Some people work two and three jobs, so you’ll see them on election day lined up.”

In addition to the early votes, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners has received 54,735 vote-by-mail applications.

That means that a minimum of 155,000 people — and probably a whole lot more — will have cast their ballots in Chicago’s first-ever mayoral runoff before the polls even open on Tuesday.

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia places the voter card into the machine to early vote at Piotrowski Park, 4247 W. 31st. Thursday, April 2, 2015 (Brian Jackson/For The Chicago Sun-Times)

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia places the voter card into the machine to early vote at Piotrowski Park, 4247 W. 31st. Thursday, April 2, 2015 (Brian Jackson/For The Chicago Sun-Times)

Emanuel, whose campaign mailed out a ton of absentee ballots to his targeted voters, refused to speculate on how many of those early votes are his.

He would only say “numerous factors” drive up the early vote. They include the high stakes, the convergence of spring break, Passover and Easter, and the fact that people are “much more comfortable” voting early.

“There’s a paradigm shift. Every day is election day for two weeks. But, more importantly, every day for four years after that are the consequences,” the mayor said after casting his ballot Thursday.

“My name may be on the ballot. But, the future of the city of Chicago is what’s at stake here. People know that. This is not about me. This is not about Chuy. It’s about who you think is better to steer that ship. . . . They know this is a significant election with serious consequences because of what we know is just ahead of us. We have major fiscal challenges. We have major issues as it relates to people’s retirement.”

For the first time in recent memory, election board spokesman Allen said early voting started to “fall off” on Tuesday and Wednesday. Normally, early voting is “on the upswing” at that point.

“Everybody’s going into spring break. We’re finally getting good weather. They’re leaving town. A lot of people got their ballot in the bank, so to speak, and went ahead and used early voting,” Allen said.

“It remains to be seen if we have a big Friday and Saturday like we always do or whether we suddenly see it taper off or level off.”

What does it all mean for turnout, which was 34 percent in Round One of the mayoral sweepstakes?

“We always have decent turnouts in Chicago — better than any other municipality around the country: New York, L.A., Miami, Houston or other towns in the Midwest. So our 34 percent would kick theirs all around the court,” Allen said.

“We’re gonna definitely have more than 34 percent [on Tuesday]. But, whether it’s gonna be 39, 42, 48 or 50 [percent] — who knows?”

During presidential election years, early votes and absentee balloting accounts for roughly 24 percent of Chicago’s overall vote. In off-year and mayoral elections, the range is 12-to-18 percent. On Feb. 24, early votes and absentees were 18 percent of the overall vote, Allen said.