Young people in Chicago aren’t voting. Here’s why

Only 3% of ballots cast Feb. 28 were by young voters. What’s the deal? ‘It’s obvious to me that young people in that city don’t feel empowered by their governance,’ Harvard-based author John Della Volpe said.

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Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas await the start of a debate at ABC7 studios on March 16. With both candidates for mayor polling closely, any advantage in turnout could produce an advantage in the election.

Chris Sweda, AP Photos

NEW YORK — The new edition of the Chicago Sun-Times political show “At the Table” focuses on the April 4 battle for mayor between Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson, and when I asked the political panel of campaign operatives and reporters about the youth vote, a stunning statistic emerged: only 3% of ballots cast on Feb. 28 came from the youngest voters.

That stat came from WBEZ data reporter Amy Qin, one of the “At the Table” show panelists, who highlighted that the youngest voters in Chicago did not show up in the first round to vote.

No matter how you analyze it, that turnout from the youngest voters is abysmal.

According to the Chicago Board of Elections, when it came to the Feb. 28 municipal contests, voters between the ages of 18 and 24 were barely engaged.

Let’s look at the Feb. 28 turnout numbers by age. Of the total ballots cast:

• 3.23% were voters 18-24

• 14.95% were voters 25-34

• 16.98% were voters 35-44

• 16% were voters 45-54

• 18.66% were voters 55-64

• 17.73% were voters 65-74

• 12.45% were voters 75+

The latest polls put the April 4 race between Johnson, 47, and Vallas, 69, close enough to conclude that any small factor can determine who wins the race.

How do you turn out young voters?

Persuading undecided voters — that is, people who actually show up to vote — is one path. The other, harder path, is to get non-voters — especially younger voters— to vote.

I asked one of the nation’s experts on youth voting, John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, about the lousy turnout of the youngest voters in Chicago.

“Without knowing Chicago, it’s obvious to me that young people in that city don’t feel empowered by their governance,” said Della Volpe, whose book, “Fight: How Gen Z is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America,” came out last year.

To turn out young voters, Della Volpe said the first part of the equation is “they need to have trust or faith in the political system, that their vote could actually make a difference, changing their lives and changing the lives of those who they care about.”

The next part of the equation is finding out which candidate aligns with their values, he said.

On Tuesday morning, I happened to be in New York, and I had coffee with Johnson’s campaign adviser, Bill Neidhardt. We talked about the youth vote — and the Johnson campaign.

Neidhardt said there is “a way we can win with a general turnout,” that is, an age-agnostic plan to get votes from supporters of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill. 

On Feb. 28, Lightfoot came in third, with Garcia in fourth place.

The best thing the Johnson campaign has going for it when it comes to young voters is Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent. He is coming to Chicago to headline a Thursday rally for Johnson at the UIC Forum, 1213 S. Halsted St.

Sanders, 81, a two-time Democratic candidate for president — has been and remains a champion of younger Democratic voters. Rapper Vic Mensa will also appear at the 7 p.m. rally.

Being a young candidate does not automatically win young voters. Mayoral candidate Ja’Mal Green, 27, who has 63,600 followers on TikTok, only got 2.17% of the vote.

@jaymalgreen For those who say I’m too young to be Chicago’s next mayor, I’ll tell you this. I get things done! #GoGreenChicago #ChicagoMayor #ForYou ♬ original sound - Ja'Mal D Green

How are candidates appealing to youth?

Neidhardt said that Johnson’s campaign is running on issues of importance to Gen Z — people, according to PEWresearch.org, born between 1997 and 2012. “They’re very concerned about the economic situation, but they are very supportive of taxing the rich. They’re incredibly animated by abortion rights,” he said.

The Johnson campaign is active, Neidhardt said, on six college campuses with two full-time youth lead organizers. They are organizing a “stroll to the polls” on campuses, in addition to a UIC early vote action ahead of the Sanders rally.

The Vallas campaign, asked about getting out its youth vote noted Green —the youngest mayoral contender, endorsed Vallas and has been doing media interviews and youth outreach. The campaign is also doing a targeted social media outreach to young voters and will hold a youth get-out-the-vote event Saturday

Where is the youth vote in the city?

A Sun-Times analysis of the 18-24 vote by ward showed that wards with the highest turnout in general — also had the most numbers of the youngest voters.

Voters between 18 and 24 from the 19th Ward on the Southwest Side — a stronghold for Vallas — numbered 809, according to Chicago Board of Elections numbers analyzed by the Sun-Times. The next highest was the 13th Ward, also on the Southwest Side, where 644 of the youngest voters came out, followed by 621 voters in the 41st Ward on the Northwest Side — all Vallas turf.

The 16th Ward on the South Side, won by Lightfoot, was the ward with the fewest — only 160 — of the youngest voters casting votes.

The 19th and 13th wards are remnants of the old machine wards, where voting was like breathing.

Ellen Shearer, professor emerita and former Washington bureau chief of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism — who has studied non-voters, said, “Young voters historically have been more likely to stay home on Election Day than older voters.

“The problem is voting is a habit, and if they don’t get in the habit early, they may never become regular voters.”

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