WTTW News Explains: Why Are Chicago Elections Nonpartisan?

When Chicagoans go to the polls to vote for mayor, there’s a crucial piece of information missing from their ballots: the candidates’ political parties.

Chicago has held nonpartisan elections for mayor since 1999. If no candidate gets 50% plus one vote, the top two head to a runoff a month later, regardless of their political affiliation.

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

So why the change?

We take you to the racially charged 1983 election for mayor.

Attempting to become the city’s first Black mayor was Democrat Harold Washington.

His opponent, Republican Bernie Epton, used his infamous slogan, “Before it’s too late.”

Spoiler alert: Washington won that election - but just barely, with less that 52% of the vote.

By comparison, four years earlier, Democrat Jane Byrne received a whopping 82% over her Republican opponent.

In the primary, Washington went toe-to-toe with Byrne and state’s attorney Richard M. Daley, who split the white vote granting Washington a narrow victory and his spot as the Democratic nominee.

The current runoff system would have pit Washington against Byrne.

Instead, he faced the relatively unknown and Republican, but white, Epton and just barely clinched a win.

Still, Washington did win.

So, white Chicago political leaders took a page from Southern states, using runoffs to try and keep Black candidates from winning.

In 1995, with the support of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and a Republican-controlled state government, the current nonpartisan system was put in place.

If Republicans thought the change would boost their chances, they have been bitterly disappointed. The last member of the GOP to be elected mayor of Chicago was Big Bill Thompson, in 1927.

But in politics, hope springs eternal - even if you have to change the rules to try and win the game.

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors