Home News O’Neill Burke maintains narrow lead over Harris for state’s attorney

O’Neill Burke maintains narrow lead over Harris for state’s attorney


As Eileen O’Neill Burke’s lead over Clayton Harris III for state’s attorney stayed roughly the same Tuesday, both campaigns looked to expected vote tallies on Wednesday and Thursday to provide clarity in the Democratic primary race.

But whether that results in a winner or a call for a recount remains to be seen.

City and suburban election officials Tuesday counted only about 1,000 new Democratic mail-in ballots in the race, giving O’Neill Burke, a retired appellate court judge, a 50.15% to 49.85% lead over Harris. In pure numbers, O’Neill Burke’s lead shrank slightly, to 1,598 votes over Harris. That’s compared with her 1,643-vote lead on Monday and a 10,000-vote lead a week ago.

But since election night, Harris, a former prosecutor and government official, has been slowly chipping away at O’Neill Burke’s margin as city and suburban election authorities totaled up mail-in ballots and some missing precincts.

The trend continued Tuesday when the Cook County clerk’s office, which oversees suburban voting, tabulated more than 600 Democratic mail-in ballots from Monday and Tuesday, netting Harris 43 more votes than O’Neill Burke. The Chicago Board of Elections also totaled up 400 Democratic ballots — mostly damaged mail-in ballots that were ripped or stained and not suitable for automatic scanning. That count netted Harris an additional two votes over O’Neill Burke.

In all, Harris has scooped up a little over 57% of mail-in ballots in both the city and suburbs. This, however, is not abnormal. In recent elections, local progressive campaigns typically have done better than their more moderate opponents when it comes to mail-ins returned days or weeks after Election Day. In the 2023 mayoral runoff, Brandon Johnson secured around 60% of the votes that trickled in after polls closed.

While her votes have dwindled, O’Neill Burke has expressed optimism that when the vote counting is concluded on April 2 she would emerge victorious and face Republican Bob Fioretti and Libertarian Andrew Charles Kopinski in the November general election.

Harris’ campaign, however, is keeping all its options on the table, including “a potential recount,” campaign manager Alaina Hampton said in a statement Tuesday.

“We will determine the path forward at the appropriate time,” Hampton said, reiterating a phrase she’s repeated for several days.

O’Neill Burke’s spokeswoman, Aviva Bowen, said, “We are prepared for any next step.”

Recounts are not automatic in Illinois. They must be requested and paid for by the candidates and are only the first step in a winding legal road.

While about 70,000 Democratic mail-in ballots that voters requested remain outstanding, both campaigns and both election authorities know many will remain unreturned by the April 2 deadline. Returns have already slowed considerably and both campaigns have said any bulk returns of ballots will likely be in the dozens or hundreds, not thousands.

Election judges count mail-in ballots by running them through a scanner, March 25, 2024, at the Chicago Board of Elections. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)
Election judges count mail-in ballots by running them through a scanner, March 25, 2024, at the Chicago Board of Elections. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

That leaves provisional and nursing home ballots as the largest uncounted batches to still be counted.

Tuesday was the last statutory day to validate provisional ballots, which sometimes means verifying voters’ identities. Judges at the Chicago Board of Elections plan to finish processing 1,991 provisional ballots on Wednesday and will add the valid provisional ballots into the full vote count on Thursday. Some provisional ballots won’t be counted until next Tuesday to give election judges time to double-check that a voter didn’t cast both a provisional and a mail-in ballot.

On Wednesday, city election judges also will tabulate an unknown number of ballots filled out at nursing homes visited by election judges so that elderly residents didn’t have to leave the facilities to vote. Suburban officials have only three outstanding provisional ballots to count, but have not reported on how many nursing home ballots they have left to count.

The Tribune estimates there are around 23,500 outstanding Democratic mail-in ballots in the suburbs, and Chicago election officials put the city calculation around 46,500.

How would a recount work?

A losing candidate who receives 95% of the winner’s vote total can file a petition for a discovery recount with the election authority — at either the city, county or both — requesting up to 25% of precincts in the election jurisdiction of the office being recounted. The fee is $50 per precinct, making any recount endeavor a costly one, and it’s only the first step if a candidate hopes to have the results overturned.

Chicago, for example, has 1,291 precincts. The cost to examine one-quarter of those precincts would be about $16,000, on top of the campaign expense of paying attorneys and other campaign staff members throughout the process. The call for a discovery recount this year must occur by April 15, which is five days after the formal proclamation of the election results.

How a challenger decides which precincts should be recounted depends purely on strategy, election attorneys told the Tribune.

Some candidates have focused on trying to boost their vote count, while others have aimed to drop the vote count of their opponents. Many have tried a mix of the two strategies, the election attorneys said. One practice is targeting precincts where the candidate underperformed compared with neighboring or nearby precincts.

The results of a discovery recount alone cannot overturn an election. Campaigns use the results along with other evidence, including reports from poll watchers, to decide whether to contest the full results in circuit court.

Even candidates trying to overcome small margins have struggled to do so in recent history.

In the 2020 race for DuPage County auditor, 75 votes out of more than 465,000 separated Democrat Bill White from Republican Bob Grogan. After a court-ordered recount, the gap narrowed to 58, with White still in the lead. The process took so long that by the time the recount report was made public, White had already been sworn in.

Even when the gap has seemed relatively modest, some candidates opt to skip the recount process. In the 2010 primary race for governor, Republican Kirk Dillard initially trailed then-state Sen. Bill Brady by 420 votes out of more than 767,000 ballots cast. Dillard declined to request a recount unless the difference was 100 votes or less. In the end, the difference was 193.

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