John Stevens ran for alderman of the 42nd Ward (which included Cabrini-Green) in 1969. But the Democratic machine held a tight grip on the projects and he lost to a white candidate who didn't bother campaigning. Credit: SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION

In this week’s cover story, I reported about “the Chicago Housing authority’s sleeping giant”—the 47,000 households participating in the Housing Choice Voucher program (also known as Section 8)—and attempts of those residents to organize a representative group.

One thing that became clear during the reporting of the story is that this population is a significant (and significantly overlooked) voting bloc in Chicago. These households share interests, grievances, and experiences as surely as other demographic groups like women or homeowners or young professionals. If organized and mobilized to turn out to the polls as a bloc, voucher holders could hold significant sway over not just the government agencies shaping their lives, but over the broader political landscape of the city.

Of course many voucher holders are already voting, but I began wondering about the potential of their collective power. What would happen if candidates spoke to them as voucher holders the way they speak to union households? By analyzing Chicago Board of Elections data and voucher distribution data first reported by the the Sun-Times and BGA last year, I found that ten wards have a high enough voucher population to have decided their 2015 aldermanic races.

When the old high-rise public housing projects were still standing, the Democratic machine made ample use of the residents of those buildings come election time. It wasn’t unheard of for precinct captains to threaten residents with eviction if they didn’t vote for a prefered candidate.

“You had patronage precinct workers who had jobs in City Hall or the like, whose business it was to go door to door [in the projects] to register people and turn out the vote,” says Dick Simpson, a former 44th Ward alderman and elections expert who teaches political science at UIC. “In the really bad old days they’d threaten to cut off their public housing if they didn’t go vote.” In 1969 Simpson worked on the aldermanic campaign of African-American social worker John Stevens in the 42nd ward, which included Cabrini-Green. Stevens lost to Raymond K. Fried, a white, machine candidate who didn’t even campaign because he was hospitalized at the time. When the votes were counted, it turned out that Fried secured more than 90 percent of the vote in several public housing precincts—winning one 400 to 12. Stevens, meanwhile, did better in the white precincts outside of the projects, even after his campaign headquarters suspiciously burned to the ground.

Credit: Vince Cerasani

Voting power of public housing residents, as I note in the story, was also mobilized for Harold Washington in the 1980s, particularly by legendary tenant organizer Marion Stamps.

Over the last 17 years, as part of the Plan for Transformation, the Chicago Housing Authority demolished most of the high-rises and with the structures went the voting blocs. The CHA dispersed residents into the private rental market with Section 8 vouchers. Voucher holders now outnumber public housing residents in Chicago four to one.

There’s a great deal of diversity within the vouchered population, but, according to CHA statistics, more than 80 percent of vouchered households live on less than a third of the area median income and are headed by women; 87 percent are African American. Much about American elections and electioneering—from the fact that election day isn’t a holiday, to ID and registration requirements, to targeted campaign advertisements—is set up to make it harder for these demographics to vote or discourage them from doing so. But even though turnout tends to be lower among lower-income people, black women consistently have some of the highest turnout rates in the country. And there are now more wards with significant numbers of these subsidized renters than ever before, concentrated on the south and west sides.

Of the 16 wards with very large concentrations of vouchers (more than 50 residents living in a vouchered household per 1,000 people in the ward), ten had aldermanic races that could’ve been decided by voucher holders in 2015 (if they voted as a bloc, of course). Among these wards, the margin for victory was greatest in the Seventh Ward, with Greg Mitchell beating his incumbent opponent in a runoff by 1,561 votes; the margin was smallest in the 16th Ward, where Alderman Toni Foulkes beat her opponent in a runoff by just 143 votes. There are about 2,887 vouchered households in Mitchell’s ward, and some 1,315 in Foulkes’s. This safely translates to at least one eligible voter per household given that vouchers are allocated to adults and neither of these wards (nor any of the other eight in which voucher holders could’ve decided the aldermanic races) have significant immigrant populations. (Only U.S. citizens and limited categories of non-citizens qualify for the voucher program.)

It would be unlikely to see a 100 percent voting turnout of adults in vouchered households. Just as anyone else who’s technically eligible, they may not be registered (and may not know about same-day voter registration). They may not feel like anything is at stake for them in a local or national election. They may be unable to take time off work to go to the polls. But if the voting rate among these households mirrored the rate of participation among the overall pool of registered voters in their wards (which ranges from 30 to 41 percent), six of the ten aldermanic races in these high-concentration wards could still be decided by voucher holders. With more than 67,000 voting age adults living in vouchered households across the city, “you could make a huge dent in even the mayoral election,” Simpson says.

The key for a candidate, of course, is motivating voucher holders to go to the polls by speaking to the issues impacting them as a constituency. At the same time, there’s no reason to expect that all voucher holders would vote the same way. But one thing is clear: there are voucher holders in Chicago who see the immense potential in mobilizing Section 8 households around their identity and lived experiences. For now, the CHA’s sleeping giant is a population that has yet to find its voice, to be spoken up for, or spoken to.