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Voters disappear from city rolls

Updated: March 15, 2012 8:15AM

Fewer Chicagoans are registered to vote than for any election since the city started keeping records during World War II, strong evidence of a level of disinterest that I should probably take as my cue to write about something else.

Then again, I never could take a hint.

Plus, many of you might not realize you still have one week to get yourself registered in time to be eligible to vote in the March 20 primary. The deadline is midnight Feb. 21.

I pray nobody gets hurt in the stampede I’ve started.

There were 1,279,971 registered voters in Chicago as of Monday morning.

Barring an unexpected last-minute surge, that will leave us short of the previous low for a presidential primary — 1,307,519 — set just four years ago when Barack Obama bested Hillary Clinton and that slick lawyer from North Carolina whose name I’ve already forgotten. Oh, yeah, Edwards.

City election officials estimate that leaves 400,000 to 500,000 individuals in Chicago who would otherwise be eligible but aren’t registered. “We view it as a real problem,” Chicago Board of Election Commissioners Chairman Langdon Neal said of the registration totals, which have been trending in this direction for quite some time despite constant efforts to make it simpler to sign up.

The high-water mark for a presidential primary was 2,212,087 registered in advance of the 1952 Illinois primary, according to city records. The highest for any Chicago election came in 1947 when 2,258,673 registered in advance of the mayoral voting, which happens to have been the last time there was an open seat in a mayoral race before the 2011 contest won by Rahm Emanuel. For some reason, that election didn’t seem to have the same effect.

Registration for primaries is always lower than for general elections, just as off-year election registration tends to be lower than in presidential years.

There are many reasons for the downturn in registration, Neal said, but I’m going to start with a couple that he didn’t suggest.

First, this is an especially low-interest election for Chicagoans with no presidential race on the Democratic side. Aside from the Jesse Jackson Jr.-Debbie Halvorson congressional race, some county and legislative contests and an important battle for the Illinois Supreme Court, there isn’t much to get Democratic juices flowing until the general election in the fall.

As the election authority, Neal can’t talk like that. He has to treat all the elections as if they were equally interesting.

Also, while it’s probably obvious, it also bears pointing out that another reason registration totals are down is that the city’s population keeps decreasing. The 2010 census tallied 2,695,598 city residents, down about 200,000 from a decade ago and more than 900,000 lower than in 1950 — around when voter registration was at its historical highs.

After that, it gets more complicated.

Neal points to the election board’s improved efforts to remove names that no longer belong on the registration lists — because of a voter moving or dying.

“I think we have cleaner voter rolls than we’ve ever had in the city,” Neal said, attributing that in part to better access to the county’s database of death records. Since the start of 2011, about 150,000 names have been dropped from the rolls, mostly through a mail canvass, a board spokesman said.

Another factor is the continued weakening of the old Democratic ward organizations, which means fewer people making it their business to sign up voters. “The political machinery of the past is gone,” Neal said. “Ward organizations of the past are no longer out there turning out the vote.”

Then there’s that other reason.

“Obviously, voters are feeling disconnected from the political process,” Neal said.


But whether that’s because they’re turned off by the political process or don’t think the outcome is going to affect their lives, Neal doesn’t know any better than I do.

To make registration easier before the general election, the Board of Election Commissioners plans to allow residents to register online, although they will still be required to sign and return a registration form that will be mailed to them.

Good luck with that.

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