When Chicago’s wards are redrawn later this year, population shifts in black and Latino communities could mean fewer African-American aldermen on the council.
In at least two wards, blacks no longer constitute a majority. What this means for the ward map – and at the polls – is an open question at this point. But one expert says the numbers don’t favor Chicago’s black community.
“The Latino population is growing in areas that threaten black areas, not white areas,” said Paul Kleppner, a professor at Northern Illinois University, who studies voter turnout. “So how you draw those lines and how many Hispanics and blacks you put in a ward becomes a contentious issue between those two groups.”
Voter turnout over time shows that blacks and Latinos are less likely to vote.
“In Chicago you really have to look at it in terms of three major groupings: whites, blacks and Latinos,” Kleppner said. “White turnout is always going to be higher.”
The Feb. 22 municipal election results indicate that voter turnout is driven more by race than it is by the competitiveness of an election.
Total Voter Turnout
Overall, turnout was higher than past municipal elections but still fell short of the 50 percent prediction made by the Chicago Board of Elections.
“The early voting numbers were similar to what we saw last October, when turnout was 53 percent, so we were looking at roughly 50 percent,” said Jim Allen, communications director for the Board of Elections. “In hindsight, the greater use of early voting this year merely reflected that many more people are now accustomed to using early voting.”
In reality, 42 percent of registered voters participated in the Feb. 22 election. That’s still slightly higher than 2003, which had a 33.7 percent turnout and 2007 which had a 33.1 percent turnout.
Experts say, however, that a better measure of how many Chicagoans actually participate is to look at the total percent of the voting population that casts a ballot rather than the percent of registered voters.
“Only two-thirds of the voting age population is registered to vote,” Kleppner said. “So using that [percentage of registered voters who vote] paints a rosier picture than the reality.”
According to the 2010 census data, the voting age population of Chicago is a little more than 2 million. On Feb. 22 about 594,000 ballots were cast meaning only 28.6 percent of Chicagoans 18 and over cast a ballot.
However, because a census is not taken every year, the exact population of the wards for previous elections is difficult to determine.
The number of registered voters can also be skewed because those who are registered but move can remain registered for a period of time.
“Those who move are protected by federal law,” Allen said. “Their records must stay on file as ‘inactive’ for two federal election cycles before they can be canceled.”
Ward by Ward Turnout
A closer look at the ward-by-ward turnout indicates that the competitiveness of an election does not necessarily mean people will vote in a municipal election. Instead, race seems to be an indicator of who is voting.
“Race is definitely related to, putting other things aside, turnout,” said Rob Paral, who researches demographics in Chicago. “The census bureau data is clear, even when you control for other things.”
Still, it is important to note that socioeconomics and education are also important factors, Paral said.
“What is important to understand is there is a difference between whites, blacks and Latinos, in terms of voting patterns,” Paral said. “Whites have higher registration and turnout rates, but it’s hard to detangle that from socioeconomic rates.”
“It’s hard to distinguish race and socioeconomic factors,” Kleppner said. “Both matter. Race is easy to see in the numbers.”
Examining the turnout in the wards with the most competitive aldermanic races, the 14 that are headed to April 5 runoffs, confirms the pattern of minorities voting in smaller numbers.
Eight of the 14 wards going to runoffs had turnout higher than the city average. Seven of those wards have white majority populations. Only one of those high turnout wards has a black majority.
The other six wards with aldermanic contests going to runoffs had turnout below the city average. Of those wards, five are black majority wards and one is a Latino majority ward.
To the experts these results are not surprising.
“It makes sense,” Paral said.
“That’s a pretty standard result,” Kleppner said.
There isn’t a clear way to get exact numbers on how many whites, blacks and Latinos actually vote, other than looking at the majorities within the wards.
“People do not register by ethnicity or race,” Allen said. “And even if they did, no one would know which individuals cast which ballots. The only way to approximate might be through an exit poll.”
So far, there aren’t any extensive exit polls from the Feb. 22 election.
Other factors affecting voter turnout
While race can clearly point to patterns in voter turnout, there are always other contributing factors.
Socioeconomic standing and education are crucial factors, and often related to race, but they are more difficult to track and assess.
Another important factor is the ward organization, and the number of city workers living in the ward.
“There are city workers, county workers and patronage workers whose ability to hold on to their jobs depends on doing what ward leadership tells them to do,” Kleppner said.
An example is House Speaker Michael Madigan’s 13th Ward, where the majority of the population is Latino and Marty Quinn, a first-time candidate, was running unopposed -- and yet turnout was 58.3 percent.
“It’s well-organized and city workers live there,” Kleppner said. “So, that ward will probably always have high turnout.”
It’s also important to note that Latino turnout can be low because many of them are not citizens.
“At least one-third of them [Latinos] aren’t going to be eligible to vote,” Kleppner said.
New Census means new wards
Because race has such an impact on turnout, it will be a key factor as the aldermen redraw the ward boundaries later this year.
Chicago’s one-man-one-vote system requires that wards be as close to equal in population as possible. The wards are redistributed one year after a new Census is taken, meaning by the end of this year, new boundaries should be in place.
“The gist is that certainly in Illinois and in Chicago, the law requires that you create as many minority majority districts as you can,” Paral said.
New wards mean a couple of things.
First, Chicago’s population has declined by about 200,000 since the 2000 Census. That means wards will now have about 54,000 residents, down from about 59,000, which was the approximate ward population in 2000.
There have also been shifts in racial demographics. The Latino population has increased by more than 25,000. Meanwhile the white population has decreased by more than 52,000, and the black population has decreased by more than 181,000.
“The Latinos have held on to their majority wards and the whites still have theirs,” Kleppner said, “but the blacks have clearly lost at least two wards.”
There should also be more Latino majority wards, Paral said.
“Something’s gotta give,” Paral said, “I don’t know if that means less white or black population wards. Without a doubt the city is getting more Latinos.”
The new wards are important to each racial group because of voting power. Since blacks and Latinos vote in lower numbers than whites, they need as great a majority in as many wards as possible so their candidates can be elected.
In other words, the more densely populated a racial group, the greater the chance they will control the vote.
“You could, hypothetically, construct a 50 or 55 percent Latino ward, but if even 35 percent of the ward is white, they will control the ward because they can and do vote,” Kleppner said.
The bottom line? Voting turnout patterns make it clear that race is a factor in determining who votes. That fact alone means the racial majorities in the new wards will be of concern for aldermen and residents alike.
“They’re going to have to redraw the boundaries quickly,” Kleppner said. “And it’s going to be a struggle.”