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Voters mailed it in, delivering victory to alderman in grudge match — by just 20 votes

Ald. George Cardenas admitted he was nervous on Election Night when the results showed him behind but held out hope when he learned how many mail ballots remained outstanding. “I knew there were a lot of votes to be counted,” Cardenas said. 

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), left, in 2019; state Sen. Antonio “Tony” Munoz, right, in January
Ald. George Cardenas (12th), left, in 2019; state Sen. Antonio “Tony” Munoz, right, in January
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

The next time a political candidate on Election Night insists on waiting until all the votes are counted before conceding, remember Ald. George Cardenas (12th).

On the day after the March primary with all precincts reporting, unofficial election results showed Cardenas trailing state Sen. Tony Munoz by 185 votes in their contest for 12th Ward Democratic committeeperson — 2,505 to 2,320.

Yet on Monday, when the final official tally was proclaimed by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, it was Cardenas who was declared the winner by 20 votes over the incumbent Munoz — 2,800 to 2,780.

What happened?

Mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day, March 17, and received by the election board in the days that followed went decisively to Cardenas.

Cardenas says his campaign’s own analysis of the vote showed him winning 75 percent of the mail-in ballots.

That was by design, he said, noting that his campaign put a large effort into encouraging voters to submit mail ballots, especially with many concerned about the possible health risks of voting in person at their precincts on Election Day.

Cardenas admitted he was nervous on Election Night when the results showed him behind but held out hope when he learned how many mail ballots remained outstanding.

“I knew there were a lot of votes to be counted,” Cardenas said.

A source close to Munoz said he is considering a court challenge to the results because of concerns over possible irregularities in the mail voting.

His election lawyer, Thomas Jaconetty, declined comment.

Munoz will have until April 13 to seek a discovery recount if he wants to overturn the results.

It was the second time Cardenas challenged Munoz for the ward committeeperson spot. Munoz defeated him in 2016.

Cardenas and Munoz were originally political allies when Cardenas was first elected alderman in 2003 with the help of the then-dominant Hispanic Democratic Organization.

But a falling out led to a running feud that’s now in its second decade.

Munoz unsuccessfully backed candidates for alderman against Cardenas in 2011, 2015 and 2019. Cardenas unsuccessfully backed Froy Jimenez against Munoz in last month’s Democratic primary for state senator. Munoz won that one with 65 percent of the vote.

The Southwest Side 12th Ward consistently produces one of the lowest vote totals in the city, making the committeeperson post one of the least influential.

But Cardenas said holding the party position should reinforce his influence on ward redistricting that will take place after this year’s Census.

“That’s why it was important for us to win,” he said.

Cardenas said his election was a glimpse of the future.

“The vote by mail is changing the game. It’s an awakening as far as how elections are run,” Cardenas said.

According to the election board’s final tally, only 55 percent of the voters who participated in the March 17 election cast their ballots on Election Day.

The other 45 percent either voted early or voted by mail, setting city records for both forms of voting.

State Rep. Aaron Ortiz, left, in February; Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), right, in 2016.
State Rep. Aaron Ortiz, left, in February; Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), right, in 2016.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times; James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The final voter turnout was just under 38 percent.

The 37.78% of the city’s registered voters who cast ballots is down sharply from the 53.52% city turnout in the 2016 presidential primary and the 52.70% in 2008, but above or comparable to the city’s showing in the remaining four presidential primaries of the last quarter century — including 2012 when only 24.46% of voters cast ballots.

The final results also confirmed that Ald. Edward M. Burke is out as 14th Ward committeeperson, replaced by state Rep. Aaron Ortiz. And Angee Gonzalez Rodriguez dumped veteran 26th Ward committeeperson Robert Maldonado, just a year after he was re-elected alderman.

New Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) was defeated by Maggie O’Keefe in his bid to consolidate power as ward committeeperson.

 Maggie O’Keefe, left; Andre Vasquez, right.
Former 40th Ward aldermanic candidate Maggie O’Keefe, left; Then 40th Ward aldermanic candidate Andre Vasquez, right.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file