Municipal election saw historically low voter turnout rate, just 3% of them being cast by young people

Lucas Martinez


Just under 36% of all registered voters cast a ballot in the Feb. 28 municipal election, totaling 566,973 ballots in Chicago – a city of almost 3 million people.

That voter turnout rate was among the lowest for a municipal election in the last 80 years.

Just 3% of voters who cast a vote were aged 18-24, while 49% of all ballots came from voters who were 55 or older.

Michael Rispoli, a first-year film major, was surprised.

“A lot of people in the younger ages like to complain about what’s wrong with the world,” he said. “And when you don’t vote, you’re not trying to actively change it.”

Katrina Phidd, communications director at Chicago Votes, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that encourages youth voting, said young people’s relationship with the government may contribute to the low voter turnout.

“Young people in general have a distrust and a disillusionment in the system,” she said. “We saw a resurgence of young people getting very involved politically in 2020, and that hasn’t died out, but it hasn’t necessarily translated to electoral involvement,”

Young people not having access to voting information may be another reason for the low turnout, Phidd said.

“There is a lack of readily available, quality information about the voting process, the election process and candidates,” she added.

Phidd said some people are surprised to hear this, saying they are seeing tons of advertisements on their phones and televisions about local elections.

“A lot of information people are seeing [is from] Hulu ads, which are typically run by campaigns and are often attack ads that aren’t giving people information about how to actually vote, or what is that candidates actual stance on the issues,” Phidd said. “So while people may receive that information, that doesn’t necessarily motivate or translate into people engaging.”

Max Bever, director of public information for the Chicago Board of Elections said the Board needs to find “new channels” to reach people.

“The traditional old ways of reaching people about elections – print newspapers, letters, through the mail, signage, things like that, don’t reach people in the same way anymore,” Bever said.

Bever said this decrease in voter turnout can be attributed to “when more and more voters can live within their own bubble, can choose the media that they’re consuming, choose the mail that they’re receiving, choose not being bothered by people as part of the political process.”

The amount of registered voters versus the amount of people submitting ballots shows that people who were once engaged enough to register aren’t consistently voting in local elections said Bever. He said this is possibly due to the candidates being offered to voters.

“We have over 1.58 million registered voters in Chicago, but we can’t get a lot of those voters to show up for the majority of these elections,” Bever said, adding that it is less about convincing people to do their civic duty and vote, and more about “having an issue or having a campaign or having a person that fires them up to actually get that vote cast in the first place.”

Carolina Ayala, senior creative writing major and “voter registration genius” at Columbia Votes!, said the low youth and high older voter turnout rate makes sense to them.

Those over 55 “have the time to go vote,” Ayala said. “They have the ability and most of the time, the voting polls are set up in locations that are more accessible to them.”

Phidd said younger people tend to be more transient, making it harder for them to consistently vote.

“They’re moving around, people are bouncing from schools, they’re moving from apartment to apartment,” she said. “And they’re at a somewhat chaotic point in life, speaking from experience, so voting isn’t always something that is on the forefront of people’s minds.”

Municipal elections have a historically lower voter turnout than other elections, like the presidential election, which saw a 73% voter turnout rate statewide in 2020.

Phidd said the last time there was a high voter turnout for municipal elections was the 1983 mayoral election when Harold Washington ran a robust “Get Out the Vote” campaign.

“The intention was to turn out unlikely voters,” Phidd said. “And a lot of campaigns don’t do that, but instead try to turn out or persuade consistent voters.”

Bever said this era had a higher voter turnout rate due to the election being partisan.

“They had support of political parties that often comes with a lot of money, a lot of volunteers and a lot of campaign support,” Bever said. “A nonpartisan election doesn’t have that same type of support.”

Bever said it’s also harder to get high turnout rates in nonpartisan elections because voters can’t vote simply based on their party, they have to research each candidate.

Phidd said one way to make voting more accessible amongst young voters is to make information available on phones.

“If I go to the Chicago Board of Elections website on my phone, and it looks a mess, I’m probably going to exit,” she said. “We need to make sure that the platforms people are engaging with are accessible and user friendly.”

Bever said a way the city could help increase youth voter turnout is to consider grants on behalf of nonprofits and organizations like Chicago Votes at the state and local level.

He also said that using new social media channels could help increase youth voter engagement, but it will only do so much.

“This is not a problem that’s going to be solved by the Chicago Board of Elections getting a TikTok account and having somebody in our beige office attempt to dance,” Bever said.

None of the nine mayoral candidates received enough votes to win the Feb. 28 election outright. The top two vote-getters, Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas, will face each other in the April 4 runoff election. Voters also will choose their City Council representative in 14 races.

Chicago Votes recently came out with its election guide, which details mayoral candidates’ responses to questions based around young people’s civic interests.

“Local elections are the most important elections in my mind,” Bever said. “These are the issues that affect your daily life more than what a president can decide.”