Low turnout for Obama in Chicago's black wards

Alderman Emma Mitts worked hard in the days before the presidential election to ensure that citizens in her West Side ward would take advantage of the opportunity to vote for the country's first black president.

She encouraged constituents to participate in early voting, and pushed a ride-sharing program to make sure transportation difficulties didn't keep people from casting their ballot.

Even so, turnout in her majority black ward was lower than the city average, and less than during the 2004 presidential election. Her ward is not unique.

Despite the popular perception that Sen. Barack Obama won the presidency on a tidal wave of enthusiasm in the African-American community, turnout in Chicago's majority black wards was lower than in other wards, according to a Daily News analysis of voting data.

In majority black wards, 72 percent of registered voters turned out. In other wards, 74 percent voted.

"I want to know who didn't go out and vote," she says. "That's going to be my mission if it takes me until the next election," she says.

Voter turnout is typically lower in black and Latino wards. But people involved in voter mobilization for this  year's election say they're surprised Obama's candidacy wasn't enough to change that pattern.

Particularly stunning was the trend in three majority black wards that saw fewer overall votes cast this year than in the 2004 presidential election.

In 12 others, the percentage of voters casting ballots in this year's election was lower than in 2004.

Mitts' ward, the 37th, which encompasses part of Austin, is 88 percent black. Just over 70 percent of the registered voters cast ballots in this month's election. In 2004, turnout was 72 percent.

The 20th Ward, which includes parts of Woodlawn, is 96 percent black. Just over 68 percent of registered voters cast ballots in this month's election. In 2004, turnout was 74 percent.

Englewood's 17th Ward, which is 98 percent black, saw 72 percent of voters turn out in 2004. That number fell by three percent this year. Despite registering over 1,000 new voters in the past four years, 45 fewer voters cast ballots this year than in 2004.

For Mitts, her ward's low turnout is a frustrating situation, and a missed opportunity for members of her community to participate in a watershed moment in American history.

"I want to know how they could miss out, and why they missed out," she says.

Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, says he's not surprised turnout in some West Side wards was lower than in other parts of the city.

"We always have lower voter totals and the people feel somewhat disconnected," Hatch says.

Hatch says he is hopeful that the downtrodden might be inspired by Obama's historic victory.

 "We need to bring some of this political change to the West side," Hatch says. "It would be interesting to imagine a new energized political class emerging on the West Side in the next couple of years with the Obama administration and all of that. "

Alton Miller, a veteran of Chicago politics who served as former Mayor Harold Washington's press secretary, also believes disenfranchisement plays a role.

"It's like pulling teeth to get younger people or people who don't feel they have a stake in public decisions that are made, to get them voting and interested in politics," he says. "They still have a very cynical attitude. People feel like there isn't any point in participating in politics."

Miller, now an associate dean at Columbia College, says he noticed evidence of that trend as he watched the crowd in Grant Park on election night celebrate Obama's victory.

"I thought: This is a crowd my Republican brothers in Ohio would be proud to have on the field," he says. "They were young white kids with great teeth."

Miller also says voting can be more difficult for people with less financial stability.

"You're thinking: I'll be late for work, I'll be late at daycare, or I'll  have to leave the kids, and I don't know who leave  them with," he says.

But Mitts says workers in her ward made sure to remove as many obstacles as possible to voting.

Alderman Willie Cochran, who represents the 20th Ward, says the low turnout stunned him.

"I'm mystified by this," he says. "Obviously some people stood on the sideline."

Cochran suspects many of the voting no-shows in his ward simply realized Obama was going to win the presidency, with or without their ballot.

"I don't know if there was the same urgency that we felt in the community in 2004 to go out and unseat [Bush], as opposed to a comfort level with Obama," he says. "There was a really big push to try and change the presidency back then."

Because of Obama's commanding lead in the polls, and his stalwart support in Illinois, Cochran says, the campaign paid little attention to the neighborhoods of the 20th Ward, even though they're a short walk from the president-elect's Hyde Park home.

"Not much advertising was done in our communities. No signs were distributed. No mailings were done," he says. "That personal touch in the communities, in the yards, on the lamp posts... In Chicago, it was not there. The campaign chose to spend money in other places, and it just took Chicago for granted."

While Cochran says that can send the wrong message to black voters in Chicago, he doesn't fault the Obama camp.

"The results prove what  the strategists had in mind. They won, and they won by pretty big margin," he says.

The Obama campaign could not be reached for comment.

The Daily News analysis is based on preliminary numbers; City election officials will have final data available on Nov. 25, and voting patterns could change based on those numbers.

This month's low turnout was particularly surprising to some, given the amount of effort organizers put forward to ensure likely Democratic voters were registered prior to the election.

The Daily News analysis indicates those efforts paid off. In Chicago's majority black wards, 59 percent of residents registered to vote. In other wards, the number was 47 percent.

At Leon's on 63rd, a barbecue restaurant in the 20th Ward, general manager Gwen Gooden says she fed free chicken and waffles to volunteers every Saturday this fall before they went out in the community to register voters.

"We had 2,000 to 3,000 people going out on buses," she says. "We fed them here religiously. I don't ever want to see another chicken and waffles."

She says volunteers pushed people to vote earlier this month.

"We stayed on people, told them this is something special, something that has never happened before," Gooden says.

Gooden says she doesn't know anyone who failed to vote in the election.

That sentiment was shared by a group of half a dozen men chatting in front of the Aldi store at 63rd and South Lowe Friday afternoon.

"Everybody I know voted, because they knew they would get their ass whupped," if they didn't, says Jerome Harvey, 37.

Harvey took a Metra train to the county building in the Loop and cast his ballot during early voting.

"I would have walked there if I had to," he says. "It's crazy not to vote."

Some of the wards with low turnout have lost large numbers of public housing residents. If those residents were registered to vote and remained on the rolls even after they moved away, that could impact turnout numbers.

The low turnout in Mitts' ward has encouraged her to up her efforts for the next  election. She says she's hoping the election of the country's first black president will prove to residents that they do, in fact, have a voice in politics, and that it's their duty to use it.

Obama "changed the momentum," she says. "It's up to us to continue sending that message. I want to see the people hanging out on the corners start voting."

Cochran also says he'll focus on encouraging better turnout.

"At every community meeting and every engagement that I'm going to be at, we'll talk about this very subject," he says. "We've just got to put more work into it."

~ Daily News correspondent Peter Sachs contributed to this report


ARON KISS, 11-17-2008

I think one of the reasons for a lower participation RATE may be simply that so many people have been registered in the first place: a denominator effect. It wouldn't exlain though why there are districts where even the absolute number fell.


Here in Virginia in some of the AA neighborhoods, we had similar problems. It was raining, but also the news said the lines were long early in the day, and I think many thought it was already won, and that their votes weren't needed. I hope they do get to the bottom of it, though, because I'd love to know if there are other reasons why, One community organizer, in answer to the many complaints about these particular precincts being undermanned and without enough polling machines, said 'well, if you guys would come out more for the CITY elections, maybe you could get all that so you wouldn't have to stand in such long lines!' A great point, indeed.


Interesting point, Sharon.

LOU GRANT, 11-19-2008

In the 47th Ward, there was a feeling in the three precincts that I was following that most of the people who didn't turnout were not actually living in the Ward anymore. Could registration of people who no longer lived in the wards be among the issues?

SCOTT ALLARD, 11-19-2008

How were high and low turnout, or high and low registration defined in the maps? These results are interesting, but the absolute vote numbers would be useful to put the turnout rates in perspective.


Lou, the voter rolls are supposed to be purged regularly. However, as we've seen in other elections (not necessarily in Chicago), that doesn't always happen. That would impact the numbers.

Scott, that's a good question. We divided the wards into those with lower than median turnout/registration and higher than median.

One other thing -- the article should have made it clear that the data are preliminary. Election officials release the final data next week. I've updated the article to reflect that.

Some details of the story could change, but I've been following the daily updates to the numbers, and they don't appear to change the central thrust of the story. We'll update and/or cover those developments as they occur.

SCOTT ALLARD, 11-20-2008

I'll be interested to see the final numbers. You noted 45 fewer votes in one ward. That strikes me as interesting - but there has been a lot of population change in these neighborhoods. You might have fewer people than in 2004. Since the registration rolls are not likely to reflect this, you might have fewer votes and lower turnout numbers even though people were more engaged and mobilized. The data is tricky here.



Anecdotally speaking, a lot of what's happened in terms of migration over the last couple of years is people moving INTO minority neighborhoods like Logan Square and parts of the South Loop.

Unfortunately the Census only comes around every 10 years, so there's no way to get a great fix on current populations.


Geoff, Another way to track population in wards is through school enrolment. Look to see if the public schools in the concerned areas have declining enrolment. Has CPS combined or closed schools? Then look to see if lost population can be found in charter or in Catholic schools. If the schools are empting the housing stock is converting from apartments to condos, multi to single or other changes. Thre have also been section 8 housing moves into the north side in the last few year from the south side. CPS might have soome public access data for you to mine.

RANDI DOEKER, 11-22-2008

Another angle on this is why certain precincts vote typically at the 70+% level when others –like the lakefront one where I am now a judge—barely get to 20% .(This election it hit 80%.)

One reason to consider is why people vote. My observation as a pollwatcher on the far south side is that this is the way that patronage workers “pay” for their jobs, overtime, etc. The paper ballot system is designed so that the judge can review the voter’s picks, either before the vote is put in the scanner or at 7pm during the close out procedures. (And if that doesn’t work, the voting procedures are such that a judge can cancel out the votes registered on the scanner and replace them with ‘correct’ votes. It’s very nifty system if you want to control the outcome.)

My guess is that this year there was no payoff for voting. In 2006 I was pollwatching at 4 precincts where the Dem Precinct Captain announced to all judges which races were to be inspected. And darned if they didn’t get 100% in support of those candidates.


I’ve been told by the Board of Elections that they don’t count questionable registrations in their official numbers. (Such as people who appear to have moved based on their US mail being returned.)



I think school enrollment would be a hazardous way to go -- the number of children that voting-age adults have together is dependent on race, age, and a bunch of other socioeconomic factors. The decision to enroll the kids in public school is driven by the same factors.

So you could conceivably find that a ward with rising school enrollment doesn't have more voters, just more people who are likely to have children and enroll them in public school.