About

The Chicago Elections Project is a digital history collaboration working to expand access and provide interpretation on the electoral and political history of the city.

In the course of their campaigns, men and women including Anton Cermak, Richard J. Daley, William Dawson, Jane Byrne, and Harold Washington counted votes and delivered precincts.  Before his 1983 mayoral run, Washington, a U.S. Congressman, told strategists, “Give me fifty thousand new voters and I’ll run.”  Barack Obama, as part of his 1992 work leading Project Vote in Chicago,  helped register 140,000 voters with the goal of delivering a sizable Chicago total that would swing Illinois for Democrats in the 1992 presidential election. These politicians knew that counting votes, block by block and district by district, was crucial to winning elections and driving a policy agenda.  The most skilled vote-counters and precinct captains could ascend to the top of their organizations, eventually influencing public policy for millions.

This project is working to recapture that basic building block of democracy, elections.  Participants are planning, digitizing and visualizing electoral results, and capturing narratives from participants.  We will simultaneously document the individuals who made Chicago politics and portray the limits of those individuals and the political system in Chicago.

History

Chicago is the most-studied city in the United States and the enduring narratives of Chicago machine politics shape the way we understand urban politics all around the country.  However, these stories of Chicago politics are dominated by images of Richard J. Daley and notions of a unified Democratic party machine orchestrated from City Hall.

The Chicago Elections Project broadens the view of politics to the whole city, neighborhood by neighborhood and precinct by precinct, throughout all 50 wards.  The relationships between aldermen, ward committeemen, precinct captains, and elected officials at the state and federal levels required engagement with voters on every block.

The CEP will consider these general and primary election returns together as a complete archival collection for the first time.  CEP’s interpretation of this unique data set promises to establish a model for data-driven storytelling, helping reinvigorate and reinterpret urban political history in cities around the country.

Data

The Chicago Public Library holds approximately 95,000 microfiche cards with primary and general elections data for the 20th century and 19th centuries.  These results include data as fine as the individual precinct, and the CPL collections include ward and precinct boundary maps, as well as the tabulated results.  Together, this archive is a treasure for Chicago political historians.  These materials have regularly been used by researchers and the public.  However, analog microfilm technology has been difficult to use for wide ranging inquiries.

A large-scale digitization and visualization project will allow the public, journalists, and researchers to understand the political history of the city in new ways and to tell stories about the neighborhood and city-wide electoral contests that shaped public policy in Chicago and Illinois over more than a century.

Participants

Members of the Chicago Elections Project include:

Richard Anderson is postdoctoral fellow at Penn State University’s Humanities Institute.  He holds a Ph.D in history from Princeton studying twentieth-century U.S. political, labor, and urban history. His book project, Windy City Spoils: Machine Politics and Urban Liberalism in Richard J. Daley’s Chicago, 1945-1976 traces the arc of postwar American liberalism and the Democratic Party through a close study of Chicago’s famous political machine. Anderson sits on the National Council on Public History’s Committee on Advocacy and co-edits the NCPH blog, History@Work. He is a contributor and chapter editor for American Yawp, an online, open-source college textbook. In 2014 Anderson served as a research resident at the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago.

LaDale Winling, associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, is an urban and political historian.  He is the author of the book Building the Ivory Tower: Universities and Metropolitan Development in the Twentieth Century. Winling helped create Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America, an investigation into housing, finance, and racial discrimination institutionalized by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation.

Researchers of the CEP include

J. Castillo-Alvarado is a double major in history and political science at Virginia Tech with research interests in race, gender, education, and spatial inequality. She has conducted data entry and cleanup and georeferenced historical maps with ArcGIS.

Advisors of the Chicago Elections Project include

D. Bradford Hunt, Newberry Library

Nora Krinitsky, Case Western Reserve University

Christopher Manning, Loyola University Chicago

Christopher Reed, Roosevelt University

In Memoriam: we remember the late Margaret Garb, professor of history at Washington University, who advised this project and whose work on the book Freedom’s Ballot helped inspire it. Professor Garb died in December of 2018. Please read her obituary here.