A few days before last week’s election, I got a call from a local political operative, freaking out over the fact that the lead items on the news were not about the upcoming mayor’s race, but about the ongoing sagas of R. Kelly and Jussie Smollett.
“Nobody cares about anything except R. Kelly and Jussie Smollett,” the politico exclaimed with an f-bomb or two thrown in for good effect. “If this keeps up, you and I will be the only ones who vote!”
OK, that’s an exaggeration. But the relative indifference of Chicagoans to local politics—as reflected by the turnout of 35 percent—proves what I call the Maya Dukmasova theory. Named for the Reader staff writer who coined it, the theory goes like this . . .
Damn it, Ben—get on Twitter!
Wait, wrong Maya utterance. No, the relevant Maya theory is that the local electorate is basically divided between those who passionately care and obsess about Chicago politics—like me and Maya and that freaking-out political operative—and those, alas, who don’t.
And sad to say—these days it seems the don’t-cares very much outnumber the do-cares. On the bright side, however, the news isn’t as gloomy as we thought.
Going into last week’s election, the spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election was predicting the lowest turnout for any mayoral election in history. We beat that rap—barely.
There were 557,000 or so ballots cast last week, or 35 percent of the electorate. That’s up from about 484,000, or 34 percent, who voted in round one of the 2015 mayoral election, but down from the 595,000 or so (42.3 percent) in 2011.
But it is up from the 466,000 (33 percent) in the 2007 election. That race pitted Mayor Richard Daley against Dorothy Brown—arguably a low point in the ongoing experiment of democracy in Chicago.
I will now offer several of my own theories for the abysmal turnout, starting with . . . Donald Trump.
Usually, I’m blaming him for the vile and nasty things he does. But in this case I’m pinpointing something he didn’t do. He wasn’t on the ballot.
For better or worse, Trump’s the great energizer in politics these days. Chicago’s turnout in November’s gubernatorial election rose to about 61 percent, largely ’cause so many Democrats viewed voting as an act of resistance to Trump—even if he wasn’t on the ballot back then either. It’s hard to make voting for mayor an act of resistance against Trump when all the candidates are already bashing him.
Then there’s my friend, good ol’ Mayor 1 Percent himself. I have a feeling turnout would have been higher had Mayor Rahm stayed in the race rather than wimping—I mean, dropping—out in September. He’d have probably generated a larger turnout just for being who he is—a symbol of cold indifference to inequality.
In other words, Trump and Rahm represent candidates people might get fired up to vote against. At the same time, there really weren’t any candidates to vote for—or at least there was no clear choice around whom progressives could rally.
On the southwest side, people apparently got fired up over Jerry Joyce, the native son of a prominent 19th Ward political dynasty. The vote in many precincts in the 19th Ward topped 60 percent—practically an uprising for this election.
It makes me nostalgic for the mayoral election of 1983, where we had a citywide turnout of 82 percent for Harold Washington’s epic showdown against Bernie Epton. In that election Epton, a moderate Republican, was turned into the “Great White Hope” trying to “save” Chicago (his tagline was “before it’s too late”) from Washington, who’d defeated Jane Byrne and Richard Daley in the Democratic primary. It was black people voting with pride and white people voting out of fear. Either way, it was the high point of voter participation for a mayoral election in Chicago.
Then, of course, there’s the weather. Election Day was a typically cold and dreary day in February. You’d think that after 182 years (to be exact), the powers that be would have figured out that we have something called winter in Chicago. And that it’s not a good time to have an election—unless you want a low turnout to help incumbents win.
Guess we just figured out why there’s never been an effort to change the state law that mandates mayoral elections in February.
Beyond that there’s something more insidious going on. Many Chicagoans have clearly given up hope that a mayoral election has any worthwhile meaning. Politicians and political campaigns come and go, and nothing seems to change, so why bother?
It’s a vicious cycle. Vote for the same old, same olds and nothing changes. So it’s easy to conclude that you might as well not vote at all. And what’s the result? More of the same old, same olds.
The apathy is highest in the black south and west sides. I’ve seen precinct after precinct—like the third precinct in the Ninth Ward, or the 23rd in the 16th, or the 15th in the 20th—where turnout was in the teens.
No wonder Mayor Rahm feels free to take $1.3 billion intended for low-income neighborhoods—like those in the Ninth, 16th, and 20th Wards—and spend it on Lincoln Yards in an already gentrifying north-side neighborhood. As long as there are no repercussions at the polls, the inequities will continue.
I’m not sure what I can offer as a way of remedy—other than moving the mayoral election to a warmer month. I mean—duh, people.
Here’s hoping that the upcoming runoff between Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot fires up the voters. In 2015, roughly 41 percent of voters turned out for Rahm’s runoff against Jesús “Chuy” García.
If we can’t do better than that, we have to live with the reality that the 35 or so percent of the people who vote will essentially rule the 65 percent who don’t.
It’s called democracy in Chicago. v