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On Sunday, March 26 on the West Side of Chicago, arrivals to New Mount Pilgrim M.B. Church dodged raindrops from a sudden downpour as they mounted the church steps in groups of twos and threes. They were there for a get-out-the-vote rally hosted by New Mount Pilgrim’s pastor, Rev. Marshall Elijah Hatch, Sr., and featuring mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson and Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime civil rights leader. (Paul Vallas, Johnson’s opponent, was also invited but didn’t show.)

After rousing renditions of “Excellent Is Your Name” and “We Shall Overcome” by the church choir and oratories by local pastors, Sharpton stepped to the pulpit. As he spoke, the evening sun broke through the clouds and shone through the church’s ornate stained-glass windows, bathing the altar in light.  

“We need Chicago to again set the tone for the nation,” Sharpton said. He noted the significance of the runoff date, April 4, as the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, as well as Harold Washington’s mayoral election in Chicago nearly 40 years ago, which was achieved in part through a massive voter registration drive and get-out-the-vote efforts. “It’s time that we get a movement going again,” Sharpton said. He emphasized the importance of getting voters to the polls in the runoff.

“Chicago, it’s time to rise up!” Sharpton said, bringing the congregation to its feet. “Chicago, it’s resurrection time!”

A get-out-the-vote rally hosted by New Mount Pilgrim’s pastor, Rev. Marshall Elijah Hatch, Sr., and featuring 2023 mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson and Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime civil rights leader. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®
A get-out-the-vote rally hosted by New Mount Pilgrim’s pastor, Rev. Marshall Elijah Hatch, Sr., and featuring 2023 mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson and Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime civil rights leader. Photo by ANF Chicago for The TRiiBE ®

Experts agree that turnout will be key in the race, which polling indicates is very close.

In the Feb. 28 general election, a little over 35 percent of registered Chicago voters turned out to vote. Average turnout in predominantly Black precincts was around 27 percent, according to an analysis conducted by Tom Ogorzalek, the co-director of the Chicago Democracy Project. 

More than 1.1 million Chicagoans weren’t registered to vote in round one; since then, over 11,400 have registered, according to the Chicago Board of Elections. 

To beat Vallas, who led round one with nearly 33 percent of the vote, Johnson needs high turnout for the April 4 runoff, especially among young, Black, and Latiné voters.

Since Vallas has mostly captured votes from typically high-turnout voters—older, whiter, wealthier residents along the North Side lakefront and city workers on the Far Southwest and the Far Northwest Sides—Johnson will need to mobilize segments of the electorate that tend to vote in lower numbers: working-class people of color and young people.

A nonpartisan poll released this week by the CSDD found that while Vallas has a four-point  lead over Johnson among people who self-identified as “certain to vote in the runoff,” Johnson is ten points ahead among people who were less than certain to vote.

Turnout tends to be low among groups that make up Johnson’s potential base for myriad reasons, said Tabitha Bonilla, a political scientist at Northwestern.

“If we think about certain communities being more likely to have nine-to-five jobs or to have difficulty getting child care or not having a permanent mailing address—these are all things that add to the burden of how much physical labor it takes to vote, and they tend to not be equitably distributed among racial groups,” said Bonilla. 

And young adult voters, who tend to have less voting experience, move more frequently, and often don’t live at their permanent address because they’re college students, may also face challenges when it comes to knowing how to vote, said Bonilla. 

Asked how the Johnson campaign plans to mobilize people of color and younger voters, Johnson’s senior advisor Jason Lee said they’re focused on appealing to them by talking about the issues they care about the most. 

“Commissioner Johnson is also just barnstorming across the city, going to events where people are gathered to speak about issues that matter to people and, ultimately, his vision for Chicago,” Lee said. “What that could mean for people’s lives is what’s motivating them to get involved in this election.” 

According to Bonilla, he’s right. “If you think that a particular candidate is going to shift things that matter to you in a way that will make your life better or change policy for the better, then you’ll be more likely to turn out,” she said.

Map produced by Jim Daley // The TRiiBE ®

Lee said the Black community is Johnson’s base in part because Johnson is very relatable to Black Chicagoans, many of whom identify with his day-to-day experiences like living on the West Side with his wife and three children and taking public transportation. 

He added that Johnson has “the best support among Latiné leaders in this race, and it’s not even close. And that’s what is going to help us communicate [with] and excite those voters—because they know, based on our coalition, that they’re going to be a part of a Brandon Johnson administration.”

The CSDD poll, which was the largest poll conducted this cycle according to the researchers, showed that 46 percent of Latiné registered voters prefer Vallas, while 35 percent lean toward Johnson, suggesting the Latiné vote is still in play. 

Johnson has garnered the support of several Latiné politicians like Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (IL-04); Rep. Delia Ramirez (IL-3); Commissioner Anthony Quezada; Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa (35th); Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th); Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th); Ald. Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez (33rd), and a few others. Support from trusted messengers may help sway undecided Latiné voters and mobilize them to vote. 

Andrea Ortiz, Southwest Side regional field director for United Working Families (UWF), has been getting out the vote for Johnson. 

“When talking to undecided or leaning-Vallas voters, we have found common ground on the fact that the safest communities are the ones that are invested in,” she said. “The only candidate with a plan to ensure [that this not only happens] but that there is real community input and accountability is Brandon Johnson.” 

UWF, an independent political organization that has thrown its weight behind Johnson, has knocked on over 450,000 doors, made over 650,000 phone calls, and sent over 820,000 texts to promote Johnson’s candidacy, according to Crystal Gardner, who coordinates UWF’s West Side operations for the Johnson campaign.


Gardner said she started hosting canvasses for Johnson every weekend since mid-December out of her Austin apartment. She and her team have canvassed, phone and text banked, and hosted community meetings where West Side residents could hear directly from Johnson. Leading up to the election, Gardner said UWF has “rides to the polls” and is coordinating with other grassroots organizations to engage all potential voters.

Voter registration drives and coalition building were also key parts of Washington’s strategy. 

As a precondition for his candidacy in 1983, Washington asked members of his coalition to register 50,000 Black Chicagoans to vote. The People’s Coalition for Voter Registration got to work. They held voter registration rallies and political education events to register more than enough voters for Washington to enter the race. 

Washington beat Bernie Epton, a Republican who drew large support from racist white voters, with 51.7 percent of the vote. Around 82 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot. Washington won an astounding 99 percent of the Black vote.

Washington built relationships in Chicago’s Latiné communities and received endorsements from leaders like García (who recently endorsed Johnson) and Ald. Luis Gutirréz (who like García later became a Congressman). And while he only won around 15 percent of the Latiné vote in the 1983 primary, 82 percent of Latiné voters punched nine in the runoff against Epton. 

“Had the opposite occurred—had four of five [Latiné] voters gone with Epton instead—Washington would have lost,” journalist and author Gary Rivlin wrote in his book Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race.


Some commentators and journalists have pointed out the similarities between the 2023 election with Johnson and Vallas and the one in 1983 with Washington and Epton. 

Public safety and the equitable distribution of city resources remain important issues. And Vallas’s “take Chicago back” refrain is a slightly sanitized version of Epton’s “before it’s too late” slogan. 

Also similar to Epton, Vallas has become the candidate of choice for many white voters. 

But a few important things have changed since 1983. Chicago is less segregated than it was in 1983 and has gotten rid of partisan elections, where candidates run as Democrats and Republicans. Whether the change, which also introduced the runoff system, is due to Washington winning the 1983 Democratic primary with 36 percent of the vote can be debated. 

Plus, Chicago’s political machine isn’t as strong after taking some blows in the 1980s and all but fell apart in recent years: Some of its old leaders — such as Ald. Ed Burke — have been indicted for corruption, and aldermanic privilege and the patronage system have been constrained by reforms and executive orders. 

In 1983 the Chicago Democratic machine had more muscle, and white residents feared that the benefits it doled out to their communities would disappear if a Black candidate became mayor. Racial polarization is present in the 2023 election, but at a much lower level than it was in 1983, Ogorzalek said. 

“Race is much more weakly correlated with political support than it was then,” Ogorzalek said. “Johnson has many more white supporters than Washington did. [Johnson’s] areas of strength [on Feb. 28] were actually in majority-white or very diverse areas of the North Side.” 

Additionally, Latiné residents make up a larger portion of the electorate than they did in 1983. So “appealing only to your own group” doesn’t work as well as it used to, Ogorzalek said.

On March 30, Johnson will try to expand his coalition by appearing with Senator Bernie Sanders in a get-out-the-vote rally at the UIC Credit Union 1 Arena at 7:00 p.m. 

Jim Daley contributed to this story.

is an editor, reporter, copy editor, and fact-checker based in Chicago.