Chicagoans are already heading to the polls to vote for their next mayor ahead of Election Day on Feb. 28. This is the first mayoral race since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, candidates will be taking on a city still reeling from economic recession and an increase in crime since the beginning of 2020. They will also have to face the “most corrupt" city in the country, and the drop in public school attendance since 2010.

There are nine candidates vying for the mayor’s seat to face these issues and more: incumbent Lori Lightfoot, Kam Buckner, Jesús “Chuy” García, Ja’Mal Green, Brandon Johnson, Sophia King, Roderick Sawyer, Paul Vallas and Willie Wilson. A runoff election will be held on April 4 if no candidate receives above 50% of the votes.

What’s on voters’ minds?

Kumar Ramanathan, a seventh-year PhD candidate at Northwestern focusing on the politics of racial inequality in the U.S., noted that Chicagoans experience a wide range of socioeconomic conditions which create divergences in policy concerns across the city.

“The stuff that matters in local politics affects people very much on a day-to-day level, but in very different ways across different residents,” Ramanathan said.

However, results from a poll commissioned by WBEZ, Chicago Sun-Times, Telemundo Chicago and NBC5 show that 44% of survey participants view crime and public safety as the most important issue guiding their vote. Criminal justice reform came second at 13% while the economy and jobs followed with 12%. Ramanathan noted that concerns with CTA inefficiencies like scheduled trains that never arrive , bike accidents and unhoused people have also been prevalent.

Last year, Chicago saw its highest number of homicides since 1996, according to statistics released by the Chicago Police Department. While 2022 recorded the fewest homicides since before the COVID-19 pandemic, last year still saw the fourth most homicides in Chicago since 1999.

In a Feb. 9 forum, candidates including King, Wilson and Vallas expressed their support for a police-based approach to crime, which could include policies to increase the number of police officers and bring some retired officers back into the police force. Buckner, Green and other candidates favored a community-based approach that would invest more resources into low-income communities.

Who are the different candidates?

Of the crop of candidates for mayor, all but two have held office or worked in some level of government.

The ballot order goes as follows:

Ramanathan said that, based on polling results, five of these candidates have a shot at making it into a potential runoff election: incumbent Lori Lightfoot, Paul Vallas, Chuy García, Brandon Johnson and Willie Wilson.

So what? I live in Evanston.

Weinberg second-year Aby James said he believes that Chicago politics is highly consequential for Evanston residents, and NU students in particular, because of the city's proximity.

“We're so close to Chicago, and a lot of the things that we do are related to Chicago," James said. "Most people here are going to take an internship that takes them to Chicago."

Chicago is only 12 miles from Evanston, and NU's Chicago campus houses the Feinberg School of Medicine and the Pritzker School of Law. The intercampus shuttle also moves commuting students and faculty members to downtown Chicago on weekdays.

James noted a disconnect between the student body’s frequent interaction with Chicago and their political knowledge about it.

“I think Northwestern is very politically engaged, but I don't think we're as politically engaged about Chicago politics as we should be, considering how close we are to Chicago,” James said.

Ramanathan added that Chicago is an important example of urban politics in the United States, an example that NU students can apply to understand politics from their own hometowns.

“The kind of dynamics that are happening in this election have a lot of similarities to what goes on in other cities and the kind of changes that are happening in urban politics,” Ramanathan said. “There's a lot to be learned from this that students can carry with them if they end up living in Chicago or living elsewhere.”

Who can vote? How could I vote?

First and foremost, you need to be a Chicago resident to vote – whether that means you’re a student from Chicago registered with your home address, or if you have lived in a Chicago address for at least 30 days before Election Day. You also have to be a U.S. citizen who is at least 18 years old, and cannot be in jail for a felony conviction.

Visit NU Votes' 2023 Chicago Municipal Elections Education Guide for more resources about voting in the upcoming mayoral election. A complete list of polling locations by ward can be found here. Voting on Election Day will be open from six a.m. until seven p.m.

Thumbnail image "Chicago Flag" by Daniel Huizinga is lisenced under CC BY 2.0.