Why Is Chicago’s Mayoral Election In February?

By Zack Luck

Here in America’s Third Second City, Election Day is less than two months away.  You heard that right, no primary, just straight to an election (with some unusual procedures) on the third Tuesday in February.  This is Chicago’s very own way of saying “you thought just having Elections on Tuesday was anti-democratic, we’re going to go one further, and pick a Tuesday with literally freezing average temperatures.”

The election (rather than a primary) is in February  for at least some good reasons.  As the Chicago Tribune explained, in the 1990s Chicago created a non-partisan run-off system, getting rid of the primaries all together.  If one candidate gets a majority in February’s election, then there is no runoff; if not, then the top two candidates face off on April 5th.  Getting rid of the primaries was likely a smart move since Chicago’s last Republican mayor once offered to stump for Calvin Coolidge and the last Republican candidate to run against Daley took home just 2.8 percent of the vote.

What does Chicago’s runoff system mean for the election?  The Tribune pointed out that Harold Washington, the city’s first African-American Mayor, might never have been elected if the current system was in place then.  Washington became mayor by winning a three-way race against two white candidates. The Tribune convincingly argues that, in a run-off, white voters in 1983 might have unified to elect his top-vote-getting opponent.

 Today, Chicago has nothing close to a racial majority.  Unlike in 1983, it will be almost impossible to win a majority in the election by appealing to only non-Hispanic Whites (about 32% of the city), African-Americans (about 40%), or Hispanics (about 28%).    Chicago is deeply divided by race.  For months, political leaders in the city’s African-American community fought to find their “consensus” candidate.  Earlier this month insider pressure on one of two remaining well-known African-American candidates finally led to a single leading African-American candidate for mayor, Carol Moseley Braun.  While many see the emergence of a unity African-American candidate as a game changer, and it might be, the runoff system will force any candidate to draw support from a broad and diverse base.

In addition to pushing candidates to seek a broad base, the runoff structure means the race, even with the initial election so soon, isn’t close to over.  Everyone knows Rahm Emanuel is the front-runner, polling as much as 30-plus points ahead of the field.  Yet, even with his dominating numbers Rahm does not poll above 50 percent.  If Rahm doesn’t reach a majority on Election Day, he might just face his biggest hurdle in April’s run-off when any opposition to him could unify behind a single challenger.


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