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So how does this mayoral election thing work?
November 18, 2010

Dear Cecil:

How do we choose a mayor? It's been so long since we've had a contested election that I've lost track of what the plan is. I guess the candidates run as non-aligned individuals. But haven't we had mayoral primaries in the past? Now we don't seem to have one scheduled. The election is scheduled for 2/22, I think. And is the winner the guy with the most votes? If all these folks run, we could get a mayor with 20 percent of the vote, then, couldn't we? I need a refresher course here.

— CC, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

Your confusion is understandable. Given the history of Chicago over the past half-century, you'd figure the main thing that happens is Richie Daley and his family have a meeting to decide which kid gets to be mayor next.

This is foolish thinking. We have this thing called an election, in which various individuals run, and we get to pick one. (So far five candidates have filed petitions, and at least one more is expected.) We've done this before — in fact we've gone through the motions every four years. The difference this time is that the winner isn't a foregone conclusion.

For many Chicagoans, this is a frightening prospect. Those who've been around for a while recall that the last seriously contested elections took place during that brief period in the 1980s when the mayor of Chicago wasn't named Daley. This is now widely thought of as the Time of Troubles. The lesson many drew is that meaningless elections = peace and prosperity, whereas democracy = bad.

Well, we're going to have to suck it up. The big procedural change — and here we get to your question, CC — is that Chicago mayoral elections are now officially nonpartisan, meaning the candidates don't declare their party affiliations, not that there's any grave doubt. On the last Tuesday in February, the 22nd, they'll all be listed on the same ballot. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the votes, a runoff election between the top two vote-getters will be held six weeks later, on the first Tuesday in April.

It all sounds so calm, so sensible, so un-Chicagoan. But don't be deceived. However virtuous the system may look now, it wasn't put in place because of saintly considerations. Rather, it was meant to ensure that an electoral outcome a lot of people weren't too happy with never happens again.

The most famous mayoral election in Chicago history … well, I shouldn't say that; all the inter-Daley elections were pretty memorable. But certainly the one with the most dramatic consequences took place in 1983.

Mayoral elections at the time were partisan — Democrats and Republicans, all seventeen of them in the latter case, voted on separate ballots. Jane Byrne was the none-too-popular incumbent. She had two challengers in the Democratic primary, Richie Daley and Harold Washington. The possibility of a black man becoming mayor wasn't taken seriously by most pundits (I believe Walter Jacobson was an exception); some viewed the race as a contest between the north side and south side Irish. But when the ballots were counted, Washington had won.

He didn't get a majority, though. He garnered just 37 percent of the vote, mostly from the energized black community, compared to 33 percent for Byrne and 30 percent for Daley. Election rules at the time didn't provide for runoffs. If they had, Byrne undoubtedly would have beaten Washington decisively — white Chicagoans may not have been wild about the city's first woman mayor, but better her than the first black one.

As it was, their only option was voting for the Republican nominee in the general election, an obscure state legislator named Bernard Epton. Quite a few did, but it tells you something about the depth of political feeling in Chicago that a sizable number of white voters decided they'd rather have an African-American as their mayor than a Republican. Washington won, 52 percent to 48 percent.

You know what happened after that. It's fair to say the city's power brokers concluded: we're not doing this twice.

The idea of a nonpartisan mayoral election with a runoff if no one got a majority was first bruited in 1986, during the runup to the 1987 mayoral contest. The intent clearly was to avoid splitting the white vote again and letting Washington be re-elected. Richie Daley among quite a few others supported the plan, but an attempt to put it up for a city referendum failed.  

As it happened, only one serious white candidate, Byrne, ran against Washington in the 1987 Democratic primary. The mayor defeated her 54 percent to 46 percent, then went on to beat Eddie Vrdolyak, who had been reborn as a Republican, by a wide margin in the general election.

A 1988 effort to push nonpartisan elections through the state legislature died, but the idea came up again in 1995, when Republicans took control of the General Assembly and the governor's office for the first time in 25 years. They used the opportunity to push through a long list of cherished measures that had gone nowhere while the Democrats were in control, one of which was nonpartisan mayoral elections in Chicago.

Public discussion of the change as it wended its way through the legislature was muted by local standards. Some black political activists hated it and threatened legal action; Daley remained neutral. Pretty much everyone else was in favor, and how could they not be? David Axelrod, who had worked for both Washington and Daley, told the Tribune, "It forces you to appeal to a broader constituency than to one ethnic or racial group."

Hard to argue with. Governor Jim Edgar signed the measure into law, and it's what we're using now. Is it fair? Yeah, it's fair. The fact remains that had nonpartisan elections been the rule in 1983, Harold Washington wouldn't have been elected, and breaks like the one that enabled him to become mayor are precisely what the system is intended to prevent. 

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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