The draw of a mayoral ballot that didn’t have a Daley on it wasn’t as great as some election forecasters had expected.
Early reports on today’s election indicate voter turnout will be well below the 50 percent predicted, possibly as low as 40 percent.
With polls set to close at 7 p.m., Langdon Neal, chairman of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, said the low figures have been consistent across the city and no parts of the city showed significantly higher voter participation than others.
“Citywide it’s pretty even,” Neal said, saying snow this morning didn’t help matters. “I think this morning it wasn’t ideal. That’s a factor.”
The two previous municipal elections had about 33 percent turnout, Neal said, but election officials expected to reach about 50 percent given this was the first year in more than a half-century that an incumbent wasn’t running for mayor.
Those that did show up to vote, however, said they were energized by the chance to put a new person in City Hall.
"We have been here for 15 years, and it is the first time we feel like we have a choice," said Joy Donohoe, who brought her toddler son along with her to the 47th Ward polling place at Coonley Elementary School. "The power of the incumbent in this city is so strong that it is difficult to overcome. It is not a dig against Mayor Daley. It was always just a foregone conclusion he would win."
Today's election got under way at 6 a.m. and has run smoothly, aside from a few tales typical of Chicago elections, like a couple of drunk election judges and a pastor who overslept and opened the church polling place late. Along with the mayoral candidates, 239 men and women are running for alderman, with only seven uncontested races in the 50 wards.
Pre-Election Day polls on the mayoral race showed former congressman and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel well ahead of his three major challengers: Carol Moseley Braun, the former U.S. senator and the first black woman elected to that office; Gery Chico, who has held high-level positions at City Hall, Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Park District and City Colleges, and Miguel del Valle, the first Latino in the state Senate and currently city clerk.
The big question was whether Emanuel can get the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a one-on-one runoff election April 5.
On the city's North Side, voter turnout had been so slow in Warren Park that election judges cheered when two voters walked in. Only 71 voters, out of 600 in the 50th-Ward precinct, had voted as of 12:30 p.m.
Turnout was similarly slow for the other two precincts in Warren Park.
"It should be packed at lunch hour and it's not," said Kathy Holdren, one of six judges staring at seven empty voting booths. "It goes faster if we have more people."
In the 38th precinct in Uptown, only about 100 people had voted by noon. But just after noon, seven people showed up at once, the biggest surge poll workers had seen all day.
David Stein, 53, was among the lunchtime voters who showed up to vote in a subsidized residential building in Uptown. For him, the aldermanic race to replace Ald. Helen Schiller in the 46th Ward was more important than the mayoral race.
"It's very important in this ward to preserve affordable housing and serve a diverse population that includes economic and class as well as racial" Stein said. "Some candidates are for that and some are not."
Stein said he voted for Marc Kaplan for alderman and Miguel del Valle for mayor.
"(Del Valle) seems the most like a man of the people and not big money interests," Stein said. "Rahm (Emanuel) is too connected to Wall Street and appeals to their interests. They already have too much clout, so they don't need to be in Chicago City Hall."
Closer to the lakefront, some voters said they turned out specifically to vote for Emanuel.
"It's a big change in Chicago," said Margaret O'Hara, who cast her vote for Emanuel in a high-rise residential building near Lake Shore Drive. "It's important that the next mayor understand the importance of keeping the Magnificent Mile nice, with art and flowers."
Katie Klabusich, 31, declined to reveal her mayoral pick after voting at The Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii in Little Italy, but said she was grateful for the chance to consider someone other than the outgoing mayor.
"I think it's time to change something," she said. "I always voted for (Daley) but sometimes that was for lack of option. The choice today was about who was most equipped."
Kim Hanna, 41, voted in the 47th Ward and called the election "an exciting time."
"The biggest thing for me is all the energy I have seen," she said. "There is anticipation and sort of anxiety about where the city is going and where this neighborhood goes from here."
Precinct workers in the 48th Ward in Margate Park said voter turnout had been quite low. But Terrence Hayden, 67, echoed the excitement of many other voters, saying this is the first real mayoral election Chicago has had in years.
"It's not the Daley machine. It's new players," Hayden said. "Prior to this, it didn't matter who you voted for, Daley was going to win. This time we have a real choice."
For Hayden and his wife Liz, 62, that choice was Rahm Emanuel.
"He will try to do the right thing for as many people as possible," Liz Hayden said.
Her husband added: "He's just a phone call away from the White House."
Down the street in the 24th precinct, the situation was worse. Only 17 people had voted this morning. Workers joked about whether they would even see 60 all day.
"This is much slower than I've ever seen it," said Linda Banks, a polling place administrator who has worked elections for many years. "I don't know if it' because of the candidates or if nobody gives a care anymore. We could have brought our cots and went to bed."
The U.S. attorney's office and the Cook County state's attorney's office are monitoring polling places for any irregularities reported and to investigate allegations of fraud.