Eileen O’Neill Burke won the razor-thin primary for Cook County state’s attorney. How did she do it?

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This year’s Democratic primary for Cook County state’s attorney was one of the narrowest local primary election wins in recent memory.

Eileen O’Neill Burke barely squeaked past Clayton Harris III in a race where the outcome wasn’t decided for nearly two weeks. In heavily Democratic Cook County, O’Neill Burke, who will face Republican nominee Bob Fioretti in November, is all but assured to be the county’s next top prosecutor.

Speaking to reporters during a Monday morning news conference, O’Neill Burke said she intends to provide Cook County residents with the level of public safety they desire.

“I spoke to people all over the county, all over the city. And what unites us is more than what divides us. People told me, everywhere, they want to be able to go out at night and not be worried,” O’Neill Burke said. “They want to ride on a safe public transportation system. People want illegal guns and assault weapons off of our streets. Those are all things we all want. We can do that. We can move this county forward. Whether you voted for me or not, I’m promising today that I will work tirelessly as your state’s attorney.”

While O’Neill Burke’s overall margin of victory was incredibly small — about 1,500 votes or 0.3 percentage points — the results were anything but close in most precincts across Cook County, according to a WBEZ analysis of election returns as of March 31.

Both O’Neill Burke and Harris won hundreds of precincts by wide margins of 20, 30 and even 50 percentage points or more, the analysis shows.

The margin of victory was at least 20 percentage points in more than 71% of the county’s 2,700 precincts, according to the analysis. The margin of victory was at least 40 percentage points in more than 42% of the county’s precincts.

Here’s a breakdown of some key findings from WBEZ’s analysis, which provides a glimpse into an election that could have gone either way.

Harris won big, but O’Neill Burke won more often

Harris captured nearly 400 precincts by 50 percentage points or more, compared to about 300 such precincts for O’Neill Burke. Harris was strongest in precincts on the South and West sides of Chicago and throughout the south suburbs and near west suburbs.

But O’Neill Burke captured nearly 460 more precincts than Harris overall. Her strongest showings came in precincts on the Northwest and Southwest sides of the city and near downtown. O’Neill Burke also scored big in the near northwest and near southwest suburbs. She carried more than twice as many precincts as Harris — 991 to 430 — in suburban Cook County.

Black voters overwhelmingly backed Harris, but turnout was low

Despite losing more precincts than he won, Harris remained competitive thanks to strong support from Black voters in the city and suburbs. Harris won nearly 77% of the combined vote in majority-Black precincts throughout the county. He amassed about 67,000 more votes than O’Neill Burke did in those precincts.

But that margin could have been much wider in those precincts if voters there had turned out in numbers similar to those seen in two previous Democratic primaries for state’s attorney. In 2016 and 2020, when Democratic primaries featured competitive presidential races at the top of the ballot, majority-Black precincts turned out far more voters than they did last month.

Majority-Black precincts countywide logged about 126,000 votes in last month’s Democratic primary for state’s attorney, a far cry from the 350,000 in 2016 and 230,000 in 2020. In those elections, majority-Black precincts were instrumental in State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s victories.

While Harris enjoyed strong support in majority-Black precincts, he polled a few percentage points behind Foxx’s showings in those precincts in 2016 and 2020. And despite the low vote totals in majority-Black precincts, a few extra percentage points in his strongholds could have made a difference.

For instance, if Harris had won 83.5% of the vote in majority-Black precincts last month — as Foxx did in 2020 — it would’ve improved his overall vote total by about 9,000 votes, roughly six times more than the votes he needed to win.

Eileen O’Neill Burke speaks at her election night watch party at the RPM event space in River North.

After almost two weeks of uncertainty, Eileen O’Neill Burke edged out Clayton Harris III for the Democratic nomination, with mail ballots tallied Friday sealing the most hotly contested race of the primary a full 10 days after the polls closed. The Associated Press called the race over — and the two candidates agreed.

Eileen O'Neill Burke (left) speaks with reporters during a campaign stop at Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen on Election Day; Clayton Harris III (right) speaks at Taste 222 in the West Loop on Election Night.

Eileen O’Neill Burke is leading Clayton Harris III, 50.15% to 49.85%, a margin that changed only by hundredths of a percentage point, after city and suburban officials tallied more mail-in ballots Thursday.

Clayton Harris III (left) and Eileen O'Neill Burke (rght) campaign for Cook County state's attorney on election day.

The latest batch of city and suburban mail-in ballots in the Cook County state’s attorney’s race show Eileen O’Neill Burke leading Clayton Harris III by 1,637 votes, up 39 since Tuesday.

Clayton Harris III (left) and Eileen O'Neill Burke (right) answer reporters’ questions after a debate during the Cook County state’s attorney’s race at ABC7 Studios in February.

Unofficial results show Eileen O’Neill Burke now leads Clayton Harris III 50.15% to 49.85%. Both campaigns say they are prepared for next steps in the contest.

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Based on unofficial results, O’Neill Burke now leads Harris 50.16% to 49.84%. They are separated by less than 1,700 votes.

STATESATTY-032024-1.jpg

More mail-in ballots were counted Sunday, leaving 2,015 votes separating Harris and Burke. The two were separated by 4,771 votes after Saturday’s count. Burke is leading Harris 50.19% to 49.81% overall.

Eileen O'Neill Burke (left) speaks with reporters during a campaign stop at Manny's Cafeteria & Delicatessen on Election Day; Clayton Harris III (right) speaks at Taste 222 in the West Loop on Election Night.

She’s easily ahead in the suburbs, while Harris has a narrow edge in Chicago. On Friday, thanks to the counting of mail ballots from Chicago voters, Harris had a net gain of 1,366 votes.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, dressed in a blue suit jacket, looks pensive at the microphone during a luncheon.

The Cook County State’s Attorney said Tuesday’s historically low turnout was “deeply concerning,” saying that it “tells me that we have an electorate that has not been engaged and that’s very troubling, not just for the state’s attorney’s race, but for our democracy as a whole.”

Clayton Harris III speaks at his election night party at Taste 222 in the West Loop, Tuesday, March 19, 2024. Eileen O’Neill Burke waits to walk on stage at her election night watch party at the RPM event space in River North, Tuesday, March 19, 2024.

Some 100,000 votes or more are still to be counted in the close race, including votes cast in 11 Chicago precincts and mail-in ballots.

Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates (third from right) looks on as Mayor Brandon Johnson greets supporters at Brighton Park Elementary School last year.

While candidates backed by the Chicago Teachers Union won many of their primary races Tuesday, the city’s left-leaning political movement hit a major bump with the apparent loss on Mayor Brandon Johnson’s key ballot initiative, while the Cook County state’s attorney race hangs in the balance.

Running against each other in the Democratic March 19 primary for Cook County state’s attorney are Clayton Harris III and Eileen O’Neill Burke.

Eileen O’Neill Burke, who stepped down from a seat on the appellate court to run for state’s attorney, took an early lead against her opponent Clayton Harris III.

Running against each other in the Democratic March 19 primary for Cook County state’s attorney are Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III.

Democrats appear to be leaning toward taking a tough-on-crime approach.

Running against each other in the Democratic March 19 primary for Cook County state’s attorney are Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III.

The ex-judge’s top 25 individual donors include no African Americans and no women, a WBEZ analysis of her Illinois campaign filings finds.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara said he voted for Eileen O’Neill Burke and encouraged officers in the union to do so. But he added that Burke’s opponent, Clayton Harris, would be “a step up” from State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who is not running for re-election.

Eileen O’Neill Burke, who faces Clayton Harris III in the Democratic primary, has received hundreds of thousands from conservatives.

Running against each other in the Democratic March 19 primary for Cook County state’s attorney are Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III.

Running in the Democratic primary for Cook County state’s attorney are Clayton Harris III, a university lecturer, and Eileen O’Neill Burke, a former Illinois Appellate Court judge.

Democrat Eileen O’Neill Burke as she was about to file petitions in December for the primary race for Cook County state’s attorney.

Officeholders can keep taking a public pension if they aren’t working for the branch of government that’s paying that benefit. Seven primary candidates, including O’Neill Burke, are getting retirement pay from past offices.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx speaks Tuesday at a meeting of the Leaders Network at a podium in front of a brick wall, flanked on either side by people sitting at tables.

‘I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do next,’ she told a Tuesday meeting of the Leaders Network at the Columbus Park Refectory.

Democrat Eileen O’Neill Burke carries in her petitions to run for Cook County state’s attorney at the Cook County Administration building at 69 W Washington, Monday, Dec. 4, 2023.

Eileen O’Neill Burke, a retired Illinois Appellate Court judge, filed more than 13,000 signatures to run as a Democrat for Cook County state’s attorney — the last day candidates had to file petitions for the March primary.

Clayton Harris III, who’s held various state and local government roles, joins former Illinois Appellate Court Justice Eileen O’Neill Burke in the March 2024 race.

Clayton Harris III, a former prosecutor and political aide, joins former Illinois Appellate Court Justice Eileen O’Neill Burke in the March 2024 primary run for state’s attorney.

O’Neill Burke wins most votes in white, Asian and Latino areas

Collectively, O’Neill Burke captured just 23% of the vote in majority-Black precincts in the county. However, she doesn’t believe her message didn’t resonate with voters on the city’s South and West sides.

“I think that people everywhere are concerned about violence and crime in their communities,” O’Neill Burke said. “I think it was a question of messaging. And we will work very, very hard throughout this next campaign season until November to make sure every single community in Cook County understands what my positions are on things and understands what my vision is for bringing the state’s attorney’s office forward.”

O’Neill Burke made up for her losses in majority-Black precincts with strong performances elsewhere. She won nearly 59% of the votes outside of majority-Black precincts. O’Neill Burke, whose campaign was powered by big donations from white men, captured more than 178,000 votes — about 70,000 more than Harris — in majority-white precincts across the county. She also captured nearly two-thirds of the vote in majority-Asian precincts, and narrowly edged Harris in majority-Latino precincts.

Some of her strongest support among majority-Latino precincts in the city came from the 10th, 13th and 23rd wards on the city’s Southwest and Southeast sides. In those precincts, she, collectively, captured about 68% of the vote.

“I can tell you that, in the Southwest Side by Midway, we came out strong for her. And we’re going to continue to come out strong for her in November,” said 23rd Wars Ald. Silvana Tabares. “Very proud, very happy, and I look forward to working with her.”

Alden Loury is the data projects editor for WBEZ. Reporter Michael Puente is on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Community team.

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