Tuesday might’ve marked the beginning of significant change in Illinois.
While letting the dust settle on statewide races before applying an analytical lens, we’ll instead look at how voters in one city overwhelmingly supported a new approach to elections.
After the Evanston City Council voted, 7-0-2, to place a binding referendum on the ballot, more than 80% of voters Tuesday approved a shift to ranked choice voting for municipal elections. That makes it the first Illinois community to adopt the process, which already is the standard for statewide elections in Alaska and Maine, plus at least 50 cities nationwide, according to FairVote, a nonprofit election reform agency.
Ranked choice voting eliminates runoff elections as well as the possibility of someone winning with a plurality. How does it work?
Consider the 2010 gubernatorial race, when Democrat Pat Quinn (an incumbent after replacing Rod Blagojevich) got 46.8% of the total votes against 45.9% for GOP state Sen. Bill Brady. That ballot also had independent Scott Lee Cohen (3.64%), Green Party candidate Rich Whitney (2.7%) and Libertarian Lex Green (0.93%).
Rather than being limited to only one of the five options, or cast a write-in vote, a ranked choice ballot gives voters the chance to rank the other candidates in order of their support. The initial count tallies everyone’s first choice. If someone gets a majority, that’s the result. But if no one reaches 50% plus one, there’s a second count.
Whoever came in last is eliminated. Any ballots that listed the last-place finisher as top choice get added to those voters’ second choice. In a three-person race, the math is simple. In 2010, it’s a little more complicated, because even if all 34,681 Libertarian ballots ranked Quinn as their second choice, he still wouldn’t have 50% of the total votes cast.
FairVote suggests voters stop ranking if they’re indifferent about remaining choices, but encourages developing opinions about the full slate. A completely ranked ballot “will never hurt your first choice, but it might help your next choice defeat your last choice.”
Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss has advocated for ranked choice voting since his time in the General Assembly, but his own political history offers an object lesson: Biss finished second in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary with 26.7%. JB Pritzker won that race with 45.1%. But if the 24.4% who backed third-place finisher Chris Kennedy had the chance to rank Biss as their second choice, it would’ve been enough to capture a majority.
To see the system in practice – including how it affects campaign and endorsement strategy – we must wait until the 2025 Evanston municipal elections. Meanwhile, expect reformers throughout Illinois to make noise about following Evanston’s lead.