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Crowded field, mail-in ballots might make ‘Super Bowl’ mayoral race too close to call

A Chicago Sun-Times/We Ask America Poll last month found five candidates with a slight edge over the rest of the field. Top row left to right, Toni Preckwinkle had 12.7 percent, Bill Daley had 12.1 percent, and Gery Chico had 9.3 percent. Bottom row, Willie Wilson, left, had 9 percent and Susana Mendoza, right, had 8.7 percent. More than a quarter of the electorate (25.8 percent) was undecided. Sun-Times File Photos by James Foster, Rich Hein and Ashlee Rezin.

A Chicago Sun-Times/We Ask America Poll last month found five candidates with a slight edge over the rest of the field. Top row left to right, Toni Preckwinkle had 12.7 percent, Bill Daley had 12.1 percent, and Gery Chico had 9.3 percent. Bottom row, Willie Wilson, left, had 9 percent and Susana Mendoza, right, had 8.7 percent. More than a quarter of the electorate (25.8 percent) was undecided. Sun-Times File Photos by James Foster, Rich Hein and Ashlee Rezin.

Chicago is heading into what could be one of its most unpredictable mayoral elections ever.

Not only is it anyone’s guess which two candidates will wind up in the expected runoff, but it’s not even clear when we will know which two get to advance to that second round.

“I’ve never had anything like this before. It’s kind of like the Super Bowl,” 47th Ward Democratic Committeeman Paul Rosenfeld said of the wide open races for mayor, city treasurer and his ward’s City Council seat.

With 14 candidates on the mayoral ballot, the top race is expected to be exceptionally close. And complicating the matter is the huge number of voters who opted to cast ballots by mail. Those ballots must be postmarked by Tuesday, but could take days or weeks to trickle in and be counted.

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners will keep tallying votes until March 12, which it’s required to do by law, so it can proclaim official winners by March 13.

“What candidates do, in terms of declaring victory or conceding is up to them,” said board spokesman Jim Allen said. “We’re scheduled to count up to March 12, regardless of what candidates do or say.”

(From left) Mayoral candidates Gery Chico, Bob Fioretti, State Rep. La Shawn Ford, State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board in the second of two sessions, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

(From left) Mayoral candidates Gery Chico, Bob Fioretti, State Rep. La Shawn Ford, State Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board in the second of two sessions earlier this month. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Allen declined to predict how close the mayoral race will be or whether he thinks Chicagoans will know who’s in the runoff on Election Night.

But the crowded field is making a runoff likely, if not a certainty. If a candidate wins a majority Tuesday, the race is over. But if no one wins a majority, the top two vote getters square off in an April runoff.

That holds for all the contested city races — mayor, treasurer, and the 45 aldermanic races. Five aldermen face no opposition.

The only thing certain seems to be uncertainty.

“We’re getting mixed messaging from voters,” Allen said. “We have a super-sized quantity of vote-by-mail applications but only 30 percent back so far. Early voting isn’t following its normal course — there’s a surge one day and then it tapers off the next instead of rising in the last few days.”

And in the mayoral race that unpredictability has gone into overdrive.

“There’s no poll with fewer than 20 percent undecided — that’s a large number, a very large number especially at this time. Usually that number is between 5 and 10 percent,” Allen said.

Who’s in and who’s out will depend on the distance, vote-total wise, between the top candidates, and mail in ballots may be the deciding factor, though Allen said he couldn’t say what to expect.

The board spokesman said the high percentage of undecided voters is “revealing that people haven’t made up their minds — or pollsters are calling the wrong people.”

Election officials received over 62,000 mail-in ballot applications and had received around 18,500, or around 30 percent, of them back. Some who applied were just now receiving ballots because they applied in the last few days, Allen said.

This is only the fourth Chicago mayoral election in a century without an incumbent seeking re-election.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s surprise decision last September not to seek a third term opened the floodgates of candidates.

The final field is former Illinois State Board of Education Chairman Gery Chico, former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, community activist Amara Enyia, former Ald. Bob Fioretti, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, lawyer Jerry Joyce, attorney John Kozlar, former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, tech entrepreneur Neal Sales-Griffin, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and businessman Willie Wilson.

mayoral forum

Twelve mayoral candidates (joined later by a 13th candidate) face off at a forum at Steinmetz College Prep on the Northwest Side. The candidates on stage, from left to right: Dorothy Brown, Gery Chico, Bill Daley, Amara Enyia, Bob Fioretti, La Shawn Ford, John Kozlar, Lori Lightfoot, Garry McCarthy, Susana Mendoza, Paul Vallas and Willie Wilson. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

“I’ve never seen a municipal election with this many people running for one office,” 19th Democratic Ward Committeeman and Ald. Matt O’Shea said. “The general feeling I get is that everyone is concerned about what direction the city is headed in, and obviously the mayoral election has everybody intrigued.”

The crowd of candidates started at 21 and was winnowed down to 14, but it remains one of the most crowded in the city’s history.

So long as vote by mail ballots are postmarked on or by Tuesday, and those with provisional ballots provide evidence that their vote should count, they’ll be added to vote counts.

The board will proclaim the victors on March 13 so that runoff ballots for the April 2 election can be printed and touch screens programmed by March 18, Allen said. And, while he says recount litigation is rare, no lawsuits will keep the board from “proceeding with the election results we have in hand — we can’t hold off.”

There are usually more ballots in hand at this point, but Allen says that could also be chalked up to people still making up their minds on who they want to succeed Emanuel.

That seems to be the case in the 41st Ward, where Tim Heneghan, the ward committeeman, said early voting totals are a little bit down this election as compared to similar ones — even though the Northwest Side ward is second only to the Southwest Side’s 19 Ward in early voting.

“People coming to vote, especially last week, really did not know who to vote for for mayor,” Heneghan said. “Voting has picked up — Tuesday we had 427 voters, Wednesday 340, [Thursday] I’m confident we had over 400 voters. People are starting to make their decisions, [and] I think between now and next Tuesday numbers will … continue to be high for early voting.”

In 2011, when Emanuel was first elected, overall turnout was around 42 percent in the municipal election — in 2015 turnout was a little over 34 percent.

mayoral forum

From left to right, mayoral candidates Willie Wilson, La Shawn Ford, Lori Lightfoot, Paul Vallas, Toni Preckwinkle, Amara Enyia, John Kozlar and Bob Fioretti, participate in a forum at Malcom X College. | Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Rosenfeld said the mayor’s race and the race to replace 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar could be slowing things down for voters since they have to choose between 14 candidates for mayor and nine aldermanic hopefuls, though the North Side ward has the third highest early voting total.

“I don’t know if we’ll know Tuesday,” Rosenfeld said. “I [personally] would not concede prior to counting the mail-ins because they could break real differently.”

Allen says, given the historic nature of the election, his office is trying to encourage Chicago voters to “remember their vote counts now” because it could be very close.

“There are discussions on every platform, on social media, in newspapers, everywhere. So the awareness is there, everyone has rung the dinner bell, but how many will come to the table? We don’t know.”