It’s a numbers game: Political engagement during the 2023 Chicago mayoral election

By Bridget Galibois, Junior Editor-in-Chief

Payton served as a voting location for the February 28 Chicago municipal elections. In the windows, the Honors Civics classes posted signs encouraging people to vote.

Political engagement, as defined by the National Institutes of Health, “includes a broad range of activities through which people develop and express their opinions on the world and how it is governed, and try to take part in and shape the decisions that affect their lives.” One of the primary examples of political engagement is voting for candidates that align with personal viewpoints, which can be applied both at the federal level and a more local city level.

Chicago’s 2023 mayoral election occurred on February 28, providing an opportunity for voters across the city to make their voices heard by choosing candidates that aligned with their political beliefs. With a large field of candidates in the nonpartisan election, polls indicated that it was unlikely that any candidate would receive over 50% of the vote, which would have been necessary to win the election outright. This made the April 4 runoff election all but guaranteed. Nine candidates jostled for the two largest percentages of the vote over the monthslong campaign season, hoping to advance to the runoff. Hours after the polls closed, former CPS CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Board Commissioner Brandon Johnson emerged as the two leading candidates for mayor. This eliminated incumbent Lori Lightfoot from the field, as well as former favorite U.S. Representative Jesús “Chuy” García, longtime candidate and businessman Willie Wilson, and first-time candidate and state representative Kam Buckner.

According to Ballotopedia, Vallas received 33.7% of the vote and Johnson 20.3%. Incumbent Lightfoot came in a close third with 17.1%, and conceded shortly after 8 p.m. on election night.

Many members of the Payton community felt drawn to specific candidates. Across the city, those that were eligible- teachers, staff, and seniors that are 18- showed support for their chosen candidates and voted during the mayoral election.

Nearly 35% of respondents to the Payton Paw Print survey indicated that they had voted in the 2023 Chicago municipal elections.

Physical education and health teacher Ms. Annunzio voted early for Johnson, who is a former CPS teacher and endorsed by the CTU, because “he is most supportive of CPS teachers, students, and families.” She has voted in every election since turning 18. “[It is] society’s one opportunity to make an impact on the happenings in our government. I volunteer for political campaigns, I donate to candidates I am favorable of and I encourage others to vote,” she added.

Senior Tej Shah ‘23 also backed Johnson, given that he “liked [Johnson’s] community-based crime policies.” Shah voted on election day in the 42nd ward.

Another senior took advantage of the town hall events hosted at Payton during enrichment periods in the months leading up to the mayoral election to learn more about the candidates. Of the nine contenders, Paul Vallas, Brandon Johnson, Kam Buckner, Ja’Mal Green, Willie Wilson, and Sophia King spoke at Payton as a way to boost student engagement with the voting process. After attending, the student chose to vote for Paul Vallas, because they believed it gave them “the opportunity to make a change in the city of Chicago.”

“[Vallas] has a strong business background as the former CEO of CPS, showing that he knows how to deal with challenges [and] compromise. While not perfect, I feel that he would best represent my interests as a Chicago citizen,” a different respondent added.

Three-quarters of Paw Print survey respondents who voted chose Brandon Johnson, with the other quarter divided amongst other candidates. However, of those ineligible to vote, only about 40% would have voted for Johnson, with the majority choosing other candidates.

In a survey conducted by the Paw Print, 58 Payton teachers, students, and staff submitted their thoughts on this election as well as voting overall. When asked to describe their political ideologies, 70% of Payton seniors and staff that voted identified as Democrat or liberal, and 5% identified as leaning Republican or conservative. The results of Payton students who were ineligible to vote were similar, with 62.9% of respondents identifying as Democrat or liberal and 5.7% leaning Republican or conservative. For both groups, around 5% identified as moderate. However, voters that responded were much more likely to not identify with any political ideology compared to students ineligible to vote.

A majority of respondents who voted and those who were ineligible to vote identified as Democratic/liberal.

Of the people who voted, 85% cast their ballots in person, whether early or on election day. Among them was Ms. Kat, the Director of Climate and Culture, who voted early in her ward. She said that voting is very important to her, and she “believe[s] it is [her] civic duty as an American.”

Most respondents who voted cast their ballots in person, either on Election Day or through early voting.

Physical education and health teacher Ms. Bertoni also considers herself to be politically active, voting in every election she can and even absentee voting in college. “I was a volunteer at the Democratic National Convention in 1996 when it was in Chicago, and I have volunteered for [my ward] in previous elections. I have also been an election [judge]. Since having kids I have not had the time to do the extra political work, but I am fully aware of the process,” she said. She also believes that it’s important to engage in politics because “women fought for the chance to vote.”

97% of respondents who were ineligible to vote indicated that they were either likely or very likely to have voted in this election if they would have been eligible to do so.

Even among those too young to vote, it’s seen as an important civic duty. “Voting is a powerful way to show our opinions on important topics and if everyone votes for who they support, then we will get the best person in charge,” said junior Celina Chatys ‘24. If old enough, Chatys would have voted for state representative Kam Buckner. “From what I saw he had pretty in depth plans, and I agreed with many of his stances,” Chatys said.

Ian Mann ‘24 agreed with Chatys, especially after attending some of the candidate town halls. “Buckner treated us as people who have good ideas and I got the feeling that he went to the session in order to not just show up, but actually get ideas from us. Although he’s only been in the State House for four years, he’s already had a lot of success with the SAFE-T Act and the Assault Weapons Ban, and he actually discussed the specifics of his policies that he wanted to implement [with] us.”

Mann also believes that voting in general is very important for his generation, even if it means supporting a less popular candidate. “Our country is majoritarian… if a large portion of people voted against the winning party, the winning party has to make more compromises since there is a chance they might lose the next time. This means that everyone’s vote has an impact.”

Only a handful of the 58 respondents reported that they were eligible to vote in the election but did not, and those who did cited outside circumstances that prevented them from doing so. Two were working as student election judges outside of their precinct and so were not able to go to their local polling places during the day. One of these students was 18-year-old senior Tiegan Duncan ‘23, who said that they “wanted to vote but could not bear to go into another polling place while on [their] lunch.”

The student election judge perspective from a polling place, where they help to facilitate the voting process. (Photo credit Megha Khemka)

However, other students felt disengaged with the political process. Some expressed that politicians did not connect with young voters’ interests and values, specifically those of young voters, making them less inclined to show their support for certain candidates. Others shared that learning about the complicated process can feel overwhelming. One anonymous senior, for example, felt that they “did not know enough about the people running to make a reasonable vote,” and did not cast a ballot.

This sentiment was also felt by some ineligible voters. “I didn’t pay much attention to the election [because I can’t vote] and therefore don’t know who I [would have] voted for,” Layla Zarei ‘24 said.

Respondents who voted were more likely to describe themselves as more politically engaged than those who did not vote or were ineligible to vote.

Political apathy occurs when voters believe that their votes do not matter, and it can be common in young people, such as those that shared their thoughts with the Paw Print. Despite the feelings of those that did not vote, Edgar Rafael Garcia-Velasquez ‘26 asserted that “voting is a privilege in this country, because everyone can have a voice.”

A U.S. history and government teacher agreed, saying they believe that no matter how small an act, casting a ballot or getting involved in social movements has the potential to affect change moving forward.

“In a mathematical sense, it is unlikely that my single vote will end up mattering,” said math and computer science teacher Mx. Lee. “[But] in a philosophical sense, it matters a great deal to me personally to be involved with selecting my leaders.”

All respondents who voted either agreed or strongly agreed that voting is important, while approximately 94% of respondents who were ineligible to vote agreed or strongly agreed that voting is important.

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