Total Votes - Participation Rate:

There has been a lot of attention given to the fact that turnout last night was significantly lower than four years ago, which is true, however that year was a bit of an outlier and this year's numbers track pretty closely to the 2007 and 2003 Chicago Municipal elections:

Reg VotersTot Mayor VotersParticipation Rate
Feb 20031,436,286 463,145 32.25%
Feb 20071,407,979 456,765 32.44%
Feb 20111,406,037 590,357 41.99%
Feb 20151,421,430 466,177 32.80%

With some valid late arriving vote by mail ballots left to be counted the total votes in the Mayor's race last night currently stands at about 466K (very close to my projection last night) and a participation rate of a little under 33% on about 1.4 million registered voters. You can see that over the last four cycles the number of citywide registered voters has stayed within a band of 30,000 so it's held pretty flat. The total vote last night held remarkably similar to 2003 and 2007. In other words last night's election was nothing special, wasn't a big turnout like 2011 and wasn't a horrible one either, it just tracked well with other recent elections with an incumbent Mayor.

Projecting April's Turnout:

Today I saw two schools of thought on the likely turnout for the April runoff: 1) the number of total voters in the Mayor's race in the April runoff will be lower because a) there aren't competitive aldermanic elections in every ward, b) some supporters of the candidates that did not qualify for the runoff will not vote and c) election fatigue. The other school of thought is 2) the number of total voters in the Mayor's race in the April runoff will actually be higher than February because a) with a slimmed down field the campaign coverage will be more focused and more voters will be paying attention, b) the Mayor's veil of invincibility has been pierced leading some disaffected voters to participate, c) the weather will be better and d) with fewer other races to distract the campaigns or dilute the campaign staffs more people will be working to drive up turnout.

I still tend to believe that the overall number of voters in the Mayor's race in April will be lower than the total from February but I find the conversation interesting. We don't have much historical data to work with, there hasn't been a runoff in the Mayor's race since the current format was put in place in 1999. However we can look at all of the aldermanic elections that went to runoff in the last three cycles and see how regularly the April runoffs featured more total voters than the February elections:

YearWardFeb TotalApr TotalDiffDiff %
2011615,045 10,114 (4,931)-32.8%
2011157,059 3,550 (3,509)-49.7%
2011166,116 3,654 (2,462)-40.3%
2011179,900 6,063 (3,837)-38.8%
2011207,467 4,518 (2,949)-39.5%
2011249,255 5,490 (3,765)-40.7%
2011258,823 7,291 (1,532)-17.4%
20113614,052 10,074 (3,978)-28.3%
20113812,256 7,880 (4,376)-35.7%
20114120,109 14,458 (5,651)-28.1%
20114314,267 9,644 (4,623)-32.4%
20114515,879 12,136 (3,743)-23.6%
20114613,906 9,967 (3,939)-28.3%
20115011,487 9,698 (1,789)-15.6%
2011Combined165,621 114,537 (51,084)-30.8%
2007211,103 9,399 (1,704)-15.3%
200738,087 8,369 282 3.5%
2007156,046 4,641 (1,405)-23.2%
2007166,104 5,278 (826)-13.5%
20071813,228 8,970 (4,258)-32.2%
20072114,096 10,563 (3,533)-25.1%
2007248,421 6,416 (2,005)-23.8%
2007328,107 8,237 130 1.6%
2007356,561 6,543 (18)-0.3%
2007439,307 8,321 (986)-10.6%
2007497,441 7,803 362 4.9%
20075010,489 11,325 836 8.0%
2007Combined108,990 95,865 (13,125)-12.0%
200316,930 9,007 2,077 30.0%
2003612,686 9,354 (3,332)-26.3%
2003156,048 4,450 (1,598)-26.4%
20032113,451 11,902 (1,549)-11.5%
2003Combined39,115 34,713 (4,402)-11.3%

Looking at the table above the general expectation for an aldermanic runoff is the April election will have fewer total votes than the February election, in fact the average for the 14 aldermanic runoffs of 2011 was about 31% lower (12% lower on average in 2007 and 11% lower on average in 2003). There are a few exceptions of course but it's clear that April just has a lower participation rate.

However I would caution these totals are just for downballot aldermanic races. A runoff in a Mayor's race is likely to lead most newscasts over the next 6 weeks. You'll also see plenty of broadcast TV ads and heavy mail and likely phone calls or door knocks. The level of attention given to this runoff will be very different from these past aldermanic runoffs. No matter what your preferred theory is for turnout in April I don't think the data rules out any possibility.

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