Some voters, experts cold on Chicago’s February election tradition

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CHICAGO — In Chicago, the dead of winter isn't most people's idea of a good time for an outdoor outing. Yet for more than 100 years, it’s the month when Chicagoans head to the polls and vote in municipal elections.

WGN Investigates took a deeper look at the long standing tradition of Chicago's oddly timed elections.

“Most people don’t question it too much because it’s how it’s always been,” Austin Berg, member of the right-leaning Illinois Policy Institute, said.

Berg co-authored a book called "The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities." He is deeply critical of the city's off-year election cycle.

"It's set up to discourage democracy," co-author Ed Bachrach, Illinois Policy Institute, said.

"It's set up for one purpose only... for the mayor to control everything in the city and no one to be able to challenge him," Bachrach said.

Berg argues the timing of Chicago's election is geared towards so-called machine politicians, who cozy up to special interest groups in exchange for votes.

“There’s a vested interest in making that election at a time when only the most motivated special interests choose to come out to vote, and that’s what a February election is,” he said.

But election officials aren't buying it.

“Our turnouts are higher than New York, Miami, Houston, LA; any other big city," Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections, said.

A look at the numbers proves both sides have something to fight for. Turnout in the February 2015 contest was just 34 percent. A few weeks later, the city's first-ever mayoral runoff between Rahm Emanuel and Chuy Garcia barely moved the needle, with turnout climbing to 41 percent.

Both numbers are abysmally low when compared to the 2016 presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Over 71 percent of Chicago voters cast a ballot in that contest.

Some point to other Midwestern cities like Milwaukee, where turnout in municipal elections hit record highs in 2016, on the same ballot as a presidential primary.

Allen believes that merging the two would just be a distraction for voters in Chicago.

“You’re not paying attention to the issues of the city. You’re paying attention to whoever the candidate in the Republican and Democratic races for the presidential election,” he said.

Voters in the city have long faced one less choice on the ballot box - which party they support.

Since the 90s, Chicago has been one of a handful of big cities that holds non-partisan elections.

In 1995, Democratic incumbent Richard M. Daley faced off against Republican Ray Wardingley, a former professional clown. Wardingley ended up with just 2.8 percent of the final vote.

What was ultimately an embarrassment for Republicans was a stroke of luck for Daley and other Democrats whose party had dominated the city for decades.

Republicans that ran the Illinois statehouse at the time started rewriting the law, and Gov. Jim Edgar signed off on the change. Now, any candidate that receives more than 50 percent of the vote gets elected, regardless of their party affiliation.

"There are many cities that we think of as Democratic cities that have elected Republicans because they have that open system and there is competition. In Chicago we haven’t had that,” Berg said.

Allen said that may be true of elections past, but points to the wide open field of 14 candidates on this February's mayoral ballot as proof that democracy still runs deep in Chicago.

As for the frigid February weather, Allen said Chicagoans should be used to bundling up.

“It’s all a myth. I think we know how to put coats on,” he said.

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