Chicago Mayoral Election 2023

What Happens If There's No Clear Winner in Chicago Mayoral Election?

The results aren't unexpected as experts predicted there may not be a clear winner on election night

UPDATE: Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson has triumphed over former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas in the city’s runoff election, the Associated Press is projecting. Read more here.

As votes were counted across Chicago Tuesday evening, the city's highly watched mayoral election remained remarkably close, indicating a winner may not be called before the night ended.

As of 9 p.m., the race was separated by 12,672 votes, giving Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson a slight edge over former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas.

The results aren't unexpected as experts predicted there may not be a clear winner on election night.

So what happens if the results remain too close to call?

Veteran Democratic political strategist Joe Trippi, an adviser to the Vallas campaign, said Chicagoans should “count on” not knowing whether Vallas or Brandon Johnson will be their 57th mayor until a few days after polls close. The number of mail-in ballots is almost certain to be “bigger than the margin” separating Vallas and Johnson, he said.

“People — not just in Chicago, but around the country — have used mail-in ballots as their standard way of voting. There’s so many of those people now that, even if you have a fairly sizable winning margin on election day, there will be so many [outstanding] ballots. They may not all be turned in …  we’ll have to wait for them,” Trippi said.

“We could be in a position where somebody even has a decent lead, but no one can call it. There’s no official way to do it until everything’s in. So it could take a while,” he added. “Count on it.“

Every ballot returned by 7 p.m. Monday will be counted on election night. The rest will have to wait. Technically, the Chicago Board of Elections has until April 18 to count all vote-by-mail ballots postmarked by 7 p.m. on election night.

"We've got that two-week deadline to count all late arriving but properly postmarked to vote by mail ballots, so we will be counting them until April 18," said Chicago Board of Elections spokesperson Max Bever.

Brandon Davis, the Johnson campaign’s senior media strategist, added: “Our anxiety over being able to land things on election night is dissipated a bit as we’ve taken on new ways that allow, frankly, more voters to be a part of the process that want to be part of the process. Our campaign welcomes that.”

If it comes down to it, candidates can petition for a recount in Illinois, but only if the margin between the vote-getters is within 95% of the "the number of votes cast for any successful candidate for the same office." Such recounts are considered discovery recounts.

"You can have a free peak at 25% of the precincts and then make a decision on whether you have enough to file for a contested race," said attorney Burt Odelson, who works with the Vallas campaign.

But such events are rare, he added.

"Election contests are very rare these days because of of the electronic voting. Because of this our systems of voting are so good there's very little change that you can find anymore," he said.

While it's still unclear if the race will be called Tuesday evening, some experts say it may be best to wait.

"I think with potentially 50 some-odd thousand votes out there, the reasonable thing to do is to let that first count [of mail-in ballots] go, and that's again probably processed [Wednesday] or if they announced it Thursday, but let's wait for that first batch," Democratic strategist Tom Bowen told NBC Chicago.

"For the mayoral race, you know, if it's down to only 30,000 or 40,000 votes, if it's only a couple of percentage points, I have a feeling that campaigns will want to wait a little while to concede to see how those vote by mail ballots come back and shake out," Bever said. "Now the vast majority of those vote by mail ballots come back in the immediate three to four days after the election. So I have a I have a good feeling that we'll see the majority of those ballots and those votes counted by next Tuesday, if the race is close."

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