The ranked choice voting item on Berwyn Township ballots Tuesday was just a concept, not a commitment, but it won a landslide victory that would make Franklin D. Roosevelt jealous.
The electoral method lets voters rank candidates instead of selecting just one, which advocates say is fairer and more efficient than the traditional system, and 82% of township voters said yes to a nonbinding referendum that asked whether the state should allow it.
“I think people would like to feel free to vote their hearts,” said Green Party activist Rita Maniotis, who circulated petitions to get the measure on the ballot. “It frees them from this fear that they’re doing something irresponsible by voting for someone they believe in, but who worry they couldn’t win in the end.”
The referendum was one of the first official endorsements for ranked choice voting in Illinois, but it might not be the last.
Evanston residents could vote in the fall to adopt the system for their elections. Chicago Ald. Matt Martin 47th, is trying to persuade his colleagues to bring it to the city. And state Sen. Laura Murphy, D-Des Plaines, has introduced a bill that would make it the default for legislative, gubernatorial and other state races.
“I know that it’s a change, but if it encourages more people to become engaged in the election process, everybody wins,” Murphy said.
Ranked choice voting, long pitched as a reform by good government organizations, has caught on across the country in recent years. Maine and Alaska use it, while municipalities as varied as New York City and Salt Lake City also have adopted the system.
It works like this: Voters considering a race with, say, seven candidates rank them one to seven. If any of the seven gets more than 50% of first-choice votes, he or she wins.
If not, the candidate with the lowest number of first-choice votes is eliminated, and those who backed that candidate have their votes transferred to their second choice. The process is repeated until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote.
Andrew Szilva of FairVote Illinois, a group that advocates for ranked choice voting, said the method has plenty to recommend it.
It ensures the winner of an election has majority support. It saves money by eliminating the need for runoff elections. It encourages positive campaigning, since candidates are incentivized against alienating a chunk of the electorate. It even leads to more political and ethnic diversity among candidates, he said.
“It has what seems like a slew of benefits and very few, if any, drawbacks,” he said.
Martin, the Chicago alderman, said he became a believer after speaking with civic groups that favor the idea and seeing how it’s being used in other cities (New York used rank choice voting for the first time last year to elect its mayor).
He said it could be particularly useful in Chicago, given its tradition of runoff elections. Turnout usually declines between the first round and the runoff, he said, and holding a second election can cost the city millions of dollars.
What’s more, he said, candidates spend weeks raising more money to contest the runoff when they could be focused on their jobs.
“That (time) would be better spent putting together your ward office and connecting with people across the city,” he said.
Martin, who faces election next year, said he will make the issue a priority if he wins another term.
Evanston, meanwhile, could soon become the first municipality in the state to fully adopt ranked choice voting. Springfield uses a limited version for military voters sending in ballots from overseas, Szilva said.
A measure put forth by Ald. Juan Geracaris was approved by the city’s rules committee in June, and if the full City Council gives it the green light, Evanston residents will vote in November on whether to adopt it for local elections.
Some council members expressed concern the process could confuse voters, a worry that has come up elsewhere. Geracaris told the Tribune people unfamiliar with the concept quickly figured it out once he walked them through it.
“This is a big change,” he said. “People are accustomed to voting for one person for a position. But after explaining how ranked choice voting works, it’s always been the case thus far that people have left the conversation feeling more positive about it.”
The evidence on voter confusion so far is mixed. Szilva said 95% of New York voters said the system was easy to use, but other surveys have found greater uncertainty elsewhere. Ranked choice voting can also turn a traditional result on its head.
In a 2018 congressional race in Maine, Rep. Bruce Poliquin, the incumbent, finished with 2,000 more first-place votes than his main rival, Jared Golden. But since he had less than 50% support, the election went to second- and third-choice votes, and Golden ended up winning.
Poliquin sued in an unsuccessful attempt to get the result thrown out, claiming he was the true winner.
“It is now officially clear I won the constitutional ‘one-person, one-vote’ first-choice election on Election Day that has been used in Maine for more than 100 years,” he said after the ballots were counted.
A researcher at the MIT Election Lab examined that election and found that one supposed attribute of ranked choice voting — that it discourages nasty campaigning because candidates still want to be a voter’s second or third choice — didn’t hold up: Facebook campaign ads there were even more negative than they were in other districts around the country.
But the researcher also found that third party candidates did indeed get a boost from ranked choice voting, which is why Maniotis wanted to get it on a ballot.
She wasn’t able to vote on the referendum — she moved from Berwyn after collecting the signatures — but said ranked choice voting could be a boon for the Green Party and its priorities, even if its candidates don’t end up winning.
“What it does is send a message to elected officials of what (issues) people are really interested in, the party they are aligned with, the ideals they are aligned with,” she said. “I think it can also form a consensus around issues and perhaps other candidates will pick up those ideas as well.”