Chicago’s young voters turned out in small numbers for mayor, but are showing up big in other ways

It has been generations since the city of Chicago has seen a first-term incumbent mayor fall short at the polls. Now a new generation could decide the future of the nation’s third-largest city.

Under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, Chicago saw a spike in the rate of some violent crimes in 2020 and 2021. While the number of shootings and homicides have decreased since then, theft, robberies and carjackings have increased since last year, according to Chicago’s Police Department 2022 year-end report.

In response, Lightfoot imposed a poorly received curfew for teens in Chicago’s Loop neighborhood after a 16-year-old was shot and killed at Millennium Park. Lightfoot blamed a rise in carjackings on remote learning last year. She also raised the city’s river bridges during protests over racism and police shootings in 2020 to keep people, organizers, and protesters out of the center of the city. The bridges divide Chicago’s racially and economically segregated populations, serving as “proxies for wealth versus disinvestment,” ProPublica reported.

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According to early voting data, 18- to 24-year-olds were the smallest group of potential voters and represented just 2% of total votes cast going into Election Day.

And while these could be attributed to the low young-voter turnout for this mayoral race, Chicago Votes’ communications director, Katrina Phidd, explains that it has caused fatigue and disillusionment for young people with the mayoral office. “I think young people are very tired with the status quo,” she said.

Phidd points out that disappointing youth voter turnout is not a new issue. “It’s a historical issue we deal with year after year,” she said. What they’re paying more attention to is civic and political education, awareness and engagement among Chicago’s youth, that’s beyond voting. “We’re very critical of the electoral process. We’re not the type of nonprofit that is like ‘vote or die’,” said Phidd. Their goal is to tell people that “you have so many tools, but voting is really an important one.”

Examples include producing their own podcast, titled ‘Sh*t Talk: Studio Sessions’, that features young Chicagoans talking about issues impacting them and the city. “Things like policing and prison abolition and the role city officials have in that,” said Phidd. “We had a number of young people come on and talk about how they feel about voting and how much energy they put into the electoral process versus movement spaces.”

Another instance is hosting happy hours and events that intersect creative art with activism and politics. “We had a whole ‘give a sh*t’ weekend with a fashion show, talent show, and an art gallery each day of the weekend to bring young Black and Brown creatives into the space,” said Phidd. “And then while they’re there, we can talk to them about elections, give them a voter guide, things like that.”

This type of civic engagement is also happening in spaces outside of Chicago Votes. Hundreds of teens from approximately 60 Chicago public schools served as election judges in Tuesday’s mayoral race. That means they report for duty at 5 a.m., are responsible for opening and closing the polls, assist voters and hand out paper ballots, to name a few. Students are paid $255, and they accounted for 13% out of the roughly 6,600 election judges in the city, according to WBEZ.

That’s why Phidd thinks being included and represented in the whole electoral process matters for youth political participation. “And making sure that the city is a space where young people are valued and heard in politics, government and civic spaces,” she said.

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Hence, if younger voters turn out for the runoff elections in April, Phidd predicts that Brandon Johnson will have the younger vote. “A lot of the issues he is pushing are issues that young people have really elevated to the top of importance,” she said. “Specifically defund the police, the treatment-not-trauma ordinance. These are things that young people have been asking for and fighting for. So, I think it’s validating for young people to see a candidate that is winning with their ideas.”

Johnson, who was a former teacher and union organizer, advocates for more investment in mental health care, education, jobs and affordable housing to address crime.

While Johnson has omitted to use the word “defund” during the race and does not want to cut the number of police officers, he said that defunding the police is “an actual real political goal” instead of a slogan, during a 2020 radio interview. This majorly contrasts the beliefs of his opponent, Paul Vallas.

Vallas, who led Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001 before leaving to run school systems in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Conn., built his campaign around pro-police, tough-on-crime messaging. “Public safety is the fundamental right of every American,” Vallas said during his celebratory remarks after Lightfoot had called him and Johnson, to concede. “It is a civil right. And it is the principle of government, and we will have a safe Chicago. We will make Chicago the safest city in America.”

Vallas served as an adviser to the Fraternal Order of Police during its contract negotiations with Lightfoot’s administration and has called for adding hundreds of police officers to patrol the city, arguing that crime was out of control.

Despite the polarization, Katrina Phidd felt excitedly gratified because the top issues addressed during this race were things that young people have brought to the forefront. “And that’s exciting because it didn’t just die out. What young people have been screaming about in the street and on Twitter is being proposed as an actual policy solution now,” she said. They include affordable housing, public safety, improvements to transportation services and more.

Youth voter turnout might still be low for April’s runoff elections, but playing the long game of civic participation and engagement makes them poised to alter America’s partisan and political future, impacting major elections to come.

Naina Rao

Naina Rao

Naina Rao is Reckon's daily news reporter. She formerly worked at NPR producing for Morning Edition and the Culture Desk, and has experience covering Religion, Arts & Culture, and international news. Naina is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, proficient in Malay, and is working on her Hindi.

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