Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the total number of votes, including the Skokie portion of District 65, that separated candidates Donna Wang Su and Marquise Weatherspoon in 2021.
While the winners of next week’s elections for Evanston City Council and school board are still to be determined, voters can expect one thing for certain: the races will be hotly contested.
Over the past decade and beyond, Evanston has had a history of razor-thin margins deciding who gets to represent the city’s residents. In the spring of 2021, for example, Donna Wang Su took the fourth and final open spot on the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 board after beating fifth-place finisher Marquise Weatherspoon by just seven votes among Evanston voters and 133 total votes including the Skokie portion of the district.
The moral of the story: Every vote counts. With that in mind, the RoundTable has compiled numbers from past elections to give residents a better sense of what it will take for a candidate to win next week.
Turnout in council races tends to vary widely by ward in Evanston. In the spring of 2021, 18% of registered 5th Ward voters cast a ballot on the low end, while on the high end, 35% of 6th Ward eligible voters participated in the election.
This time around, the 2nd and 9th Ward seats are up for grabs, both of which saw a 21% turnout in 2021. In the cycle before that, in 2017, the 2nd Ward recorded a 27% turnout in an uncontested race won by Peter Braithwaite, while the 9th Ward saw a huge wave of votes, with a 39% turnout for a battle between Cicely Fleming and Shawn Jones.
Both wards have about 6,000 registered voters — the 2nd Ward has slightly more — and winning candidates usually get at least 700 or 800 votes to secure a victory, depending on the turnout.
Comparatively, though, a lot more Evanstonians vote in statewide and national elections than in council races. An impressive 70% of registered voters in Evanston cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election, and the race for governor in the fall of 2022 saw a 45% turnout in Evanston.
Council Member Devon Reid (8th Ward), who previously served as city clerk and put together post-election reports on voter turnouts, predicted a turnout between 20% and 30% of Evanston voters in the current cycle of local races.
“I think what gets voters out is when there’s a lot of clear information about the election. Presidential elections, gubernatorial elections are almost impossible to ignore,” Reid said, referencing the onslaught of television ads for those types of races. “Local municipal elections, particularly off-year municipal elections are easier to ignore, especially for folks who are low-propensity voters, like younger people of color.”
Historically, school board elections in Evanston have seen the lowest voter turnout. Despite a solid showing in 2017, with 34% of registered voters casting a ballot in the school board races that year, the numbers plummeted in 2019.
The turnout then was less than 9%, featuring just 5,280 ballots cast out of more than 60,000 registered voters in Evanston. That was at least partially due to a smaller than normal number of candidates running. District 202 had four people running for three slots, while District 65 had three candidates running unopposed.
Voter registrations have also gone down since then, with 51,317 Evanstonians registered as of the fall 2022 gubernatorial election.
When more residents vy for a spot on the local boards, turnout tends to go up. The spring 2021 race for District 65 board included eight candidates competing for four seats, and the turnout jumped to 23% from the 2019 low.
In this cycle, five people are looking to fill four open spots for the District 202 board, though Mirah Anti has essentially secured a victory in advance by running as a write-in candidate for a two-year term. That leaves the remaining four candidates running for a full, four-year term.
When the turnout is at least 20%, school board candidates normally need at least 5,000 or 6,000 votes to give themselves a chance to win. Every voter is able to vote for as many candidates as there are open seats, so the total number of votes will often be double or even triple the number of ballots actually cast.
Much like in the City Council, the competition between the candidates in the middle can be incredibly close, with only a few votes separating who gets onto the board and who doesn’t.
“The name of the game is really voter turnout and making sure you’re getting people to the polls,” Reid said. “Every vote counts, and an organized campaign needs to campaign that way.”