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Cold, apathy, cynicism all played role in low voter turnout

Official: Low voter turnout amid cold temperatures

Meg Stewart was on her way to work Tuesday afternoon when she checked Facebook and saw an voting-related post. That's when she realized it was Election Day.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I didn't do that today,’” said Stewart, 30, a Lincoln Park resident. “That was when I realized, ‘oops, I guess that's not happening.’”

Stewart, a Republican, first voted in an election in Chicago in November when she cast a ballot for now-Gov. Bruce Rauner. A South Carolina native, Stewart said she also didn't vote Tuesday because she assumed Mayor Emanuel was going to win a second term anyway.

And voting was inconvenient, she said—especially in the winter weather.

“For me, I didn't want to wait in line … knowing it was cold” outside, she said.

Voter apathy and freezing temperatures both can influence participation rates, experts say, and 2015 is no exception. Election officials expect an extremely low turnout in Tuesday’s mayoral and aldermanic elections—possibly on par with the record low of about 33 percent.

Polls closed a short time ago and official voter turnout numbers weren't available. There are about 1.4 million registered voters in Chicago.

Despite the frigid morning, weather usually is not an overriding factor in voter turnout, said Jim Allen, spokesman for the city’s election commission, who attributes the low numbers to decreased interest.

“For whatever reason [this year] voter interest is not as strong,” he said. “Voter interest drives turnout. Not weather, not sunshine.”

Allen estimates that total turnout likely will hover between 32 and 34 percent, he told RedEye on Tuesday.

But Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former Chicago alderman, said snow and cold do tend to depress voter turnout—and not only that, low turnout can benefit candidates already in office because voters who elected the candidate last time are more likely to show up at the polls this time.

But if the contest is very competitive, voters will come out to cast their votes despite wintry weather, Simpson said. In addition to the mayoral race, all 50 aldermanic seats are in contention this year.

“When the race is competitive and a lot is at stake, a lot can overcome the weather,” Simpson said.

Allen told RedEye that the biggest concern of the day was “a lack of voters. For whatever reason, they're not there in big numbers at all.”

Early voting told a different story. About 23 percent more ballots were cast during early voting this year than in Chicago's municipal election four years ago, according to officials.

Overall, about 42 percent of registered Chicago voters cast ballots in 2011.

In the mayor's race, four men are trying to unseat Emanuel: West Side Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, activist William “Dock” Walls and businessman Willie Wilson.

If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote plus one vote, the top two vote-getters will go into a runoff election April 7.

“I thought that the effort to keep Rahm Emanuel under 50 percent ... might resonate enough to stir turnout but at least the early returns look like it has only been partially successful,” Simpson said.

A Weather Channel poll in 2012 also does not bode well for Emanuel's challengers. The poll of 1,683 registered voters before the presidential election found that people who make less than $50,000 a year are more likely to not vote if the weather is bad than those making more than $50,000 a year.

The median household income in Chicago from 2009-13 was $47,270, according to Census numbers.

The same poll found that Millennials are less likely to vote than their older counterparts if there's three inches or more on the ground or it's snowing or unseasonably cold.

Chicago voters have long had to face winter weather to cast their ballots. Municipal elections have been held in February in Chicago for more than 100 years, WBEZ recently reported.

“We've kept [the elections] in February primarily because the [political] Machine does better with their controlled vote and the lowered turnout,” Simpson said.

Simpson said this winter has already had an effect on the elections. Workers for candidates have had difficulty reaching voters at their homes because of icy sidewalks and snow storms, including the one that dumped more than 19 inches of snow on the city earlier this month.

“Some of those weekends were just too icy and too snowy to reach the households,” Simpson said. “You can really sell your candidate if you're there on the front steps” of a voter's home.

And younger voters tend to value face-to-face interaction with candidates, Meghan Condon, visiting assistant professor of public policy at Loyola University Chicago, told RedEye earlier this year.

Tanya Pshenychny had that face-to-face interaction with a candidate this election season—her alderman, Ald. Joe Moore (49th), was handing out flowers at a train stop, and she scored one.

“I thought hey, maybe I should vote,” said Pshenychny, 29, of Rogers Park. “It kind of made my day.”

But when Election Day rolled around, Pshenychny didn’t cast a ballot. She didn’t feel well-informed enough to vote, she said, and she didn’t make the time on Tuesday.

“I live right next to the polling place, so it’s kind of horrible on my part,” she said. “I actually could have walked a few feet and voted.”

Contributing: RedEye Reporter Leonor Vivanco

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