The Crusader Newspaper Group

Crusader analysis: top ballot spot historically does not favor newcomers

Round one is over. After waiting hours or even days to submit their petitions, activist Ja’Mal Green’s name is at the top of the ballot in the race for Chicago mayor. At the bottom is Jesús “Chuy” Garcia. Incumbent Lori Lightfoot’s name is nearly in the middle at number 7 in a field of 11 candidates.

Four years ago, Lightfoot was number 12 on the ballot in the 2019 mayoral election. Her opponent, Toni Preckwinkle, was number 4. They were the top two finishers in the general election, while opponents Jerry Joyce and John Kenneth Kozlar finished 7 and 13, respectively.

The stage is set for the Chicago elections. After the media hype, and nail-biting lotteries, the top and bottom slots have been assigned to candidates.

In aldermanic races in Chicago’s Black wards, they include 12 incumbents and five challengers, whose names will appear first among a field of challengers running for alderman.

The first slot on the ballot is the most coveted position among political candidates.

Ninth Ward candidate Cleopatra Draper waited in line for three days at the Chicago Board of Elections to get the top spot. The second most highly sought-after spot on the ballot is the bottom spot, where the names of candidates also stand out among a field of contenders.

For next year’s election, all 17 aldermanic candidates in Black wards are not incumbents, but political newcomers and repeat challengers seeking a seat on the City Council.

But a Crusader analysis of three Chicago elections reveals that the top two spots historically don’t help challengers win political races. Since 2011, out of a total of 54 races in Black wards, 75 political newcomers or repeat challengers failed to defeat or push an incumbent alderman to a runoff, despite having the coveted top places on the ballot.

Very few newcomers occupying the top or bottom slots on ballots have won political races against incumbents. Since 2011, only two have achieved this feat. They include Roderick Sawyer, who in 2011, was first on the ballot as he pushed incumbent Freddrenna Lyle to a razor thin runoff where he defeated her by taking just over 50 percent of the vote.

Eight years later, Stephanie Coleman achieved this feat in 2019 when she pushed incumbent Toni Foulkes to a runoff while holding the top spot on the ballot that included six candidates. In the runoff, Coleman defeated Foulkes by taking over 66 percent of the vote.

Sawyer and Coleman were not just political newcomers, they are the children of prominent Chicago politicians. Sawyer is the son of Chicago’s second Black mayor, Eugene Sawyer, and Coleman is the daughter of former alderman Shirley Coleman (16th).

Candidates of prominent parents and incumbents are difficult to defeat in political races. That is why political newcomers need as much help as they can get by grabbing the top two slots on the ballot.

But on February 28, voters will choose a candidate in the 4th, 5th, 6th and 21st Black wards where there are no incumbents. That is where those who occupy the first and last ballot slots will have a stronger chance.

When appointed 4th ward Alderman, Shirley Newsome did not run for re-election. President Barack Obama’s former deputy campaign manager, Will Burns, grabbed the top spot on the ballot of seven candidates and took nearly 65 percent of the vote and won the election. It was another example of a high-profile candidate capitalizing on his background by taking the top spot on the ballot.

But defeating an incumbent is nearly impossible, even for candidates occupying the top spots on the ballot. In 2011, three candidates, or less than one percent of 23 political newcomers at the top of the ballot finished in the top two. Of 15 newcomers occupying the bottom slot, four finished last in their races. All lost to incumbents whose names were in the middle of the ballot.

In 2015, the results were worse. It was zero percent for the eight newcomers in top spots. They lost to incumbents who had less prominent places on the ballot.

And there were 15 newcomers who lost despite being at the bottom of the ballot. Two of these newcomers, Vetress Boyce (24th Ward) and Tara Stamps (37th Ward) made it to the runoffs, where they lost to Michael Scott and Emma Mitts, respectively. Of 23 candidates holding the top and bottom slots on the ballot, 16 finished last in their races.

(Sources told the Crusader that Boyce did not run in 2019 after Scott promised to back her should he step down as alderman. Boyce is now running against Scott’s sister Monique in the February election.)

In the 2019 election, six newcomers grabbed the top spot in their races. Seventeen grabbed the bottom slot, where six finished in last place.

In a rare victory, Coleman defeated incumbent Foulkes, but Jeanette Taylor in the top spot and Nicole Johnson in the number two spot beat seven candidates in races where there was no incumbent. (Alderman Willie Cochran stepped down after he was sentenced to federal prison for wire fraud and using campaign funds for personal expenses).

For more insight into the role the top spot places in the election, one can point to candidates who have run unsuccessfully multiple times in past elections.

They include Ann Marie Miles, who lost to 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, despite being at the top of the ballot in 2011 and the bottom in 2015.

In the 8th Ward, Faheem Shabazz has lost to Alderman Michelle Harris three times in past elections where he held the top spot in 2011 and the bottom spot in 2019. Shabazz is not running in 2023.

In the 18th Ward, Chuks Onyezia ran in the past three elections, but lost them all after holding the top spot in 2019, and the bottom one in 2011. He was fourth on the ballot in the 2015 election.

In the 20th Ward, Andre Smith has lost in three aldermanic races while he held the number two spot twice. He’s running a fourth time in 2023 at the bottom of the ballot.

In the 16th Ward, Eddie Johnson III, who ran twice unsuccessfully, is at the bottom of the ballot in a repeat of his 2019 position on the list.

Incumbents’ chances of being re-elected are already strong but, according to a Crusader analysis of election data, since 2011, aldermen have occupied the top and bottom slots a total of 31 times and each time they won. In fact, in 2019, about 9 of the 11 aldermen at the top of the ballot were re-elected without having a runoff.

Without aldermen in four races in the 2023 election, newcomers or repeat challengers in the top spot have a better chance of winning in crowded races.

As hearings continue this week in the challenge, the order of names on the ballot remains the same.

In the 4th Ward, where there are seven candidates, Helen West holds the top spot, while Alderman Sophia King’s Chief of Staff Prentice Butler remains at the bottom.

In the 5th Ward, Renita Ward is at the top, while Wallace Goode, Jr., is at the bottom in a field of 12 candidates.

In the 6th Ward, Sylvester Baker, Jr., leads a list of 13 candidates that includes WVON radio host Kim Egonmwan, whose name is at the bottom of the ballot.

In the 21st Ward, Cornell Dantzler has the top spot, while Kweli Kwaza holds the bottom slot in a field of 11 candidates.

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