How Illinois’s Voter Turnout Crisis Cost Democrats the Governor’s Seat

 /  May 28, 2017, 3:45 a.m.


In 2014, Democratic Illinois governor Pat Quinn (D) lost a highly contested re-election bid to Republican challenger Bruce Rauner. Quinn received 1,609,000 votes to Rauner’s 1,781,000. Just two years later, in the 2016 Democratic primary race, Illinois voters cast 2,015,647 total ballots for their preferred presidential candidates. This seems to suggest that if all of the Democrats that voted in the 2016 primary election had voted for Pat Quinn in the 2014 general election, Illinois would have retained its Democratic governor—and wouldn’t have needed a single independent voter to do so. Notably, Illinois does have an open primary in which voters do not have to be registered with the party they vote for, so it is possible that not all votes cast in the Democratic primary were from self-identified Democrats. However, 2016 revealed a sharp decline in political moderates’ participation in primary elections, so it is likely that most of these voters were, in fact, Democrats. The drastic difference between Democratic turnout in 2014 and 2016 can be understood by examining polling numbers on a ward-by-ward basis in Chicago.

In Chicago, one of America’s most liberal cities, voters cast roughly 708,000 ballots in the 2016 Democratic primary. In the 2014 governor’s election, however, only roughly 656,000 Chicagoans cast their ballots, and of these, 507,000 voted for Pat Quinn (D). Though midterm elections typically yield a lower turnout than presidential elections, a primary contest for a single party should almost certainly have fewer voters than a general election, regardless of the year. This is because a primary election only narrows down the field of candidates within a party, and does not actually elect anyone into office. The Gate compared voter turnout among Chicago’s fifty wards, and gathered information on the wards with the biggest difference in turnout from 2014 to 2016 in an attempt to figure out why their numbers changed. The following eleven wards each experienced an increase in turnout of 20 percent or greater from the 2014 general election to the 2016 Democratic primary.

Ward (neighborhoods included)Percent increase in turnout (2016 Dem primary - 2014 general election)Percentage of residents in ward who are whitePercentage of residents in ward who are blackPercentage of residents in ward who are HispanicPercentage of residents in ward who are Asian
12 (Brighton Park/South Lawndale/McKinley Park)36.288.652.1781.517.25
22 (Little Village/Lawndale/Archer Heights)33.293.968.2987.070.37
26 (Humboldt Park/Hermosa/Ukrainian Village/Logan Square)32.0519.5612.765.81.3
35 (Albany Park/Irving Park/Avondale/Logan Square/Hermosa)31.1019.644.6969.315.42
31 (Hermosa/Belmont-Cragin/Logan Square)28.6618.962.4975.882.06
1 (Wicker Park/West Town/Ukrainian Village/Logan Square)28.0345.127.0243.113.76
15 (Back of the Yards/West Englewood/New City/Gage Park/Brighton Park)26.944.7422.2771.60.98
25 (Pilsen/Greek Town/Chinatown/University Village)26.1119.939.056.2314.21
30 (Belmont-Cragin/Portage Park/Irving Park)24.6128.022.3165.543.36
14 (Archer Heights/Garfield Ridge/Brighton Park)22.7716.871.579.891.47
33 (Albany Park/Irving Park/Avondale)22.4432.303.952.99.64

In all but one of these wards, a plurality of residents are Hispanic. In the Chicago area, Hispanic people tend on average to be younger, poorer, less educated, and less likely to have health coverage than non-Hispanics. Understandably, a 2014 poll of Hispanics in the United States found that education, the economy, and health care were the three most important issues for voters. The inherent link between these issues and the platform of the Democratic Party can help explain why Hispanic voters may have been more motivated to vote in the 2016 Democratic primary.

Chicagoans may remember that in 2015, incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) found himself in a special runoff election with progressive candidate Jesús “Chuy” Garcia (D). Though Emanuel won the runoff, Garcia achieved double-digit victories in each of the eleven wards listed above. Garcia is Mexican-American himself, and represented Illinois’s First Senate District—which covers much of the Lower West Side of Chicago—from 1993 to 1999. In the 2015 mayoral election, he earned a notable endorsement from another well-known progressive—Bernie Sanders.

Fast forward to the 2016 presidential primary season, and Garcia returned Sanders’s favor, endorsing the Vermont senator before the Iowa caucus. Of the eleven wards listed above, Sanders won all but one. In fact, the only ward with a turnout increase greater than 20 percent that Sanders lost was the First, which has a white plurality. Despite this, an analysis of all fifty wards in Chicago shows that the greater the increase in turnout between the 2014 general election and the 2016 Democratic primary, the more likely Sanders was to have won. Among all the Hispanic-plurality wards in Chicago, Sanders again won all but one. Garcia’s endorsement evidently offered Sanders an advantage with the same Hispanic people who voted for Garcia in 2015.

Sanders’s success with Hispanic voters in Chicago suggests that a candidate’s connections are critical to a successful campaign. Garcia, who is incredibly popular among Hispanic Chicagoans, lent his name recognition to Sanders. Though Garcia’s endorsement likely brought Sanders’s name into focus among Hispanic voters, had these voters done their research, they likely would have come to support Sanders anyway. After all, Garcia presumably endorsed Sanders because he agreed with Sanders’s positions on policy issues and believed Sanders to be the best candidate for promoting the interests of Chicago’s Lower West Side. However, by calling attention to Sanders’s campaign, Garcia likely drew more Hispanic Chicagoans to the polls than Sanders could have alone.

This example of Hispanic Chicagoans reacting positively to a candidate’s endorsement presents an interesting solution to Illinois Democrats’ voter turnout problem. It seems that in order to be motivated to get to the polls, voters need to see how a candidate’s policies will affect their daily lives. In the instance of the Hispanic vote in Chicago, this was the only apparent explanation for such large fluctuations in voter turnout. The party can communicate a vision for how federal policies affect daily lives by creating a bridge between local and federal politics, as Garcia and Sanders did. Both fought for similar progressive issues, but Chicago voters had already felt the direct impacts of Garcia’s policies, and thus could understand him better than they could a relative foreigner such as Sanders. It is easy for voters to see how local policies affect their everyday lives, but federal policies are not always as clear. With improved relationships between local leaders and politicians at the state or federal levels, voters will feel like their own, local interests are in focus, and gain the excitement that pushes them to the polls.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Tim Koenning

Tim Koenning is a second year public policy and political science major interested in education policy and electoral politics. This past summer, he interned in the Office of Governor Mark Dayton in St. Paul, Minnesota. In his free time, Tim enjoys running varsity track and cross country, and cheering on the Washington Wizards.


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