Our election coverage revealed alarmingly low voter turnout, even at precincts with tight races for state legislature. Early reports confirmed these precinct observations – “Record low voter turnout in Chicago,” declared a Washington Post headline Tuesday night.
But, according to statistics from the Chicago Board of Elections and Cook County Clerk, voter turnout was where one would expect in a primary that lacked a competitive Democratic presidential, gubernatorial, or U.S. Senate contest. If anything, turnout was a bit more discouraging downstate where, percentage wise, more voters partook in a competitive Republican presidential primary.
“There was no hotly-contested race at the top of the ticket,” says Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections. “The biggest race was judicial [an open seat on the Illinois Supreme Court] where candidates are limited to talking about their temperament and bar ranking.”
Chicago Board of Election numbers show that 24.1 percent, or 311,000 of Chicago’s 1.29 million registered voters cast their ballot.
That sounds bad. The Chicago Tribune pointed out it’s the lowest turnout figure for a presidential primary in 70 years. And the last presidential primary, in 2008, had a 52.7 percent voter turnout.
But the last presidential primary featured a historically competitive Democratic race between Chicago’s Barack Obama and Park Ridge native Hillary Clinton. This election featured an uncontested Democratic Presidential Primary in a city where the mayor and all 50 city council members are Democrats.
The Republican presidential primary, meanwhile, was competitive and that drove up Chicago Republican voting to 47,505 voters or 15 percent of those who cast their ballot in Chicago.
In other words, even a contested Republican presidential race has a limited effect on turnout in Chicago.
The more accurate comparison, then, is not the 2012 primary with the 2008 primary, but the 2012 primary with the 2010 primary. There was a turnout of 27.3 percent in 2010.
The 2010 turnout was arguably less impressive than this year’s showing, as 2010 had competitive races for a U.S. Senate nominee, won by Alexi Giannoulias, and governor, won by Pat Quinn. “There were very high profile contests in 2010,” Allen says.
Turnout downstate, however, was roughly equivalent, despite the fact that the majority of downstate voters cast ballots in the nationally-watched Republican primary. In McClean County, for example, which includes Bloomington-Normal, 29 percent of the county's 51,000 registered voters cast ballots on Tuesday. An estimated 76 percent of the voters took part in the Republican primary.
In Macon County, which includes Decatur, turnout was 21.2 percent. In Madison County, which includes Edwardsville and Alton, turnout was 16 percent. In both counties, the vast majority of voters participated in the Republican primary.
These turnout numbers were a discouraging sign in the level of public interest for local races, like the state legislature.
“It was a primary election in which they weren’t any top of the ticket races, so turnout was about I expected,” says Will Guzzardi, a Democratic candidate for 39th District State Representative, who trails his opponent, incumbent Maria Berrios, by 111 votes.
“I wish turnout was higher,” Guzzardi says. “And there’s a lot of work to do about that.”