Voices & Choices

A tale of two cities: what Chicago can learn from San Francisco’s mayoral election

A tale of two cities: what Chicago can learn from San Francisco’s mayoral election

More than 1,800 miles, two time zones and a 1 million-plus population difference separate Chicago from San Francisco.

Yet both share the distinction of electing their first African-American women mayors in the last year - the only two among the country’s 15 most populous cities and only the third woman. Indeed, celebrations of Chicago mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot’s decisive victory in the Tuesday runoff echoed those in San Francisco 10 months earlier when London Breed won her own mayoral race in a special election.

Both women bested crowded fields of contenders in open seat races. Both emphasized their stories of success from humble and at times oppressive origins. And both pledged to usher in a new chapter for cities long challenged by inequality and “us vs. them” divisions.

But while Breed’s historic win was even more significant for its chart-topping voter turnout, Chicago saw paltry participation in its equally historic mayoral race.

Just over 30 percent of Chicago’s registered voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s runoff races, according to preliminary results. While participation mirrored that of the original, February election, it paled when compared to past city elections, including those that featured incumbents.

Millennial voters in particular were noticeably absent, despite the fact that election issues such as police reform and gun violence have proven galvanizing forces for younger activists both in Chicago and nationwide.

While the unwieldy 14-name list of candidates in the original February go-round was thought to perhaps disincentivize some potential voters, the allegedly less daunting top two runoff - guaranteeing the city its first black woman mayor in either candidate- saw equally lackluster participation.

Certainly, the fact that nearly 70 percent of voters picked someone other than Lightfoot or Toni Preckwinkle in the original race didn’t up the ante to return to the polls, nor did the increasingly hostile campaign attacks between the top two in the weeks leading up the runoff.

Such doubt stands in marked contrast to San Francisco’s historically high 53 percent turnout - topping turnout among city voters in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections on the same ballot, as well as mayoral races for the last 15 years. And while the mayoral race was at times divisive, it also featured candidates who campaigned together in the hopes of earning voters’ backup choices. In fact, Breed and her top opponent ran such successful, broad campaigns that nearly half of each of their supporters ranked the other candidate second or third, meaning Breed earned support from nearly two in three voters -far more than any San Francisco mayor in history.

Moreover, thanks to ranked choice voting, no runoff was needed to produce a winner with majority support - unlike both Chicago and Phoenix, the latter of which took nearly 10 months to fill its mayoral vacancy with a second round of runoffs still to come.  

While Lightfoot’s decisive win - with 74 percent of votes and a majority of all 50 city wards - legitimizes her leadership for supporters and opponents alike, the lurking doubt of “what could have been” casts a shadow on an otherwise celebratory moment in history. Historic elections and gains for reflective representation deserve clarity in the results and enthusiastic voter participation; San Francisco’s ranked choice voting rules show how to achieve all that in a single ‘instant’ runoff.  

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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