Records dating back to the late 1940s indicate Evanston local elections have never been partisan, but officials may still have to reinforce that fact in a referendum next year.

At the Oct. 7 City Council Rules Committee Meeting, City officials asked aldermen to consider placing a referendum on the March 17, 2020, ballot, allowing citizens to vote on whether to change from partisan to non-partisan elections.

For the question to go on the ballot on that date, aldermen would have to pass a resolution by Dec. 30, 2019.

The City’s Law Department is recommending the step, even after consulting with the League of Women Voters and Illinois Election Commission, finding records of nonpartisan elections dating back to 1949.

On the other side, though, Assistant City Attorney Hugh DuBose pointed out that following another thorough search of public and media records, “we cannot locate a referendum to implement a nonpartisan election in the City of Evanston.”

The City became aware of the situation during the last local election, when some candidate-filing challenges centered on the partisan-non-partisan question.

With no proof that officials ever officially established non-partisan as their election mode, the Illinois Election Commission General Counsel’s Office has confirmed that a referendum is necessary to switch to a non-partisan system, and has also confirmed that grandfathering non-partisan election practices in play for years is not authorized by State law, Mr. DuBose said in his memo to aldermen.

Explaining further, “I believe what happened is that in order to be non-partisan you have to pass a resolution or referendum and so the City never did that. So we are automatically partisan even if we have not been operating that way.”

Council members pressed for additional details, weighing their next move.

“What if it fails?” Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, asked City Clerk Devon Reid, also at the Oct. 7 meeting.

“If it fails,” he said, “folks can run independent. Skokie has a Caucus Party, so you can form an Evanston Caucus Party or Democratic, Republican or whatever.”

Mayor Stephen Hagerty asked, “If we do nothing in the next election cycle – just like the past ones – can someone file a legitimate complaint to take people off the ballot because they didn’t declare a party?”

Mr. Reid said people running would already have a clear understanding from information put out by his office that the City was running a partisan election and so would have to choose some party, including the option of running as an independent.

Ald. Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said that the point of the referendum “is to keep it [election practices] the same as we’ve been doing.

“Even though we shouldn’t have to, it’s important,” he said. He recommended the Council “move forward with this [the referendum] and just cross the Ts and dot the Is,” making the non-partisan practice official.

Before aldermen take that step, however, Ald. Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, asked that the City get a copy of a statement from the General Counsel’s Office confirming a referendum is indeed necessary.

“Maybe all we need to do is [get] clarification” she said. “And I don’t know what the cost of a referendum is. I’d like to know that as well.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.