Voter Turnout in Special Election Very Low

Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. took a leave of absence last June, resigned in November

For months, voters in Illinois' Second Congressional District have watched with a mixture of weariness and horror as their hometowns served as the backdrop of a political reality show, where a sitting congressman and his wife were dragged into the federal dock, both of them resigning their respective positions in disgrace.

Those residents of Chicago’s south side and neighboring suburbs have not had a congressman since last June, when Jesse Jackson Jr. took a leave of absence and never returned.

But given the chance to put a new representative in office, it appears most are taking a pass.

"We’re going to see either in the high teens or low twenties," said James Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections, noting that those who are showing up at the polls are probably die-hards who vote in every election.

"Right," Allen said. "The real consistent voters."

While it is literally impossible to tell the candidates without a scorecard (there are 18), most believe it will come down to a contest between the three front runners in the Democratic primary. The district has not elected a Republican since 1953.

In suburban Cook County, more than 4,400 early votes were cast, and 98 percent of those voters asked for Democratic ballots. In Chicago, 98 percent of the more than 2,700 early voters cast Democratic ballots (portions of the district extend into Will and Kankakee counties as well).

Former State Representative Robin Kelly, former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson and Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale were expected to draw the lion’s share of those Democratic votes. But the turnout was expected to be so small that a few votes either way, split among the largely unknown field, could tip the election to any of the perceived front-runners.

"If they didn’t get out to vote early, they might not come out to vote at all,' said Courtney Greve, a spokesman for the Cook County Clerk’s Office, which monitors voting in suburban areas of the county which make up the largest portion of the district. "Unfortunately, these elections don’t have very high turnout, and the weather isn’t helping the situation."

Indeed, as she spoke, a driving snow was pelting the windows of the election headquarters in downtown Chicago. And history has shown that paltry electoral turnouts are further diminished when any inclement weather rears its head on election day.

The race received plenty of recently publicity thanks to guilty pleas for Jackson and his wife, Sandi Jackson, and the $2 million in ads paid for by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Super PAC to bash Halvorson's A+ rating from the National Rifle Association. The Super PAC threw its support behind Kelly, who is widely considered to be the race's frontrunner.

Halvorson said residents' votes mean so much more because it's a special election.

"The 2nd Congressional District has been plagued for a long time with ethical problems and corruption," she said, "We have a chance to really close that chapter and start fresh."

But Beale said the election wasn't about guns at all, and he touted his ability to bring jobs to the community -- and voters to the polls.

"That's how we're going to address the crime," Beale said. "We're going to put people to work and they're going to have something to do."

As small as the turnout has been, and was expected to be, early voting actually ran higher for this election than in the special election which chose Mike Quigley as congressman in the 5th Congressional District four years ago.

"Hopefully it wasn’t just people trying to vote to avoid the storm today," Greve said.

Halvorson wasn't buying weather as an excuse for voters to avoid the polls either.

"If you stay home," she said. "I don't want to hear anybody complain about what's going on in Congress, because this is your chance to make a difference."

Polls remain open until 7 p.m. in about 550 precincts throughout the district.
[View the story "Race To Replace Jesse Jackson Jr." on Storify]

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