Residents of Evanston’s Eighth Ward heard a presentation on May 26 on ranked-choice voting, a system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. 

A proposal to shift Evanston to ranked-choice voting will be discussed in June in the City Council’s Rules Committee. The May 26 discussion was part of an online Eighth Ward meeting hosted by Council Member Devon Reid.

Larry Garfield, a board member for the nonprofit organization FairVote Illinois, which explains on its website how ranked-choice voting works in elections with several candidates.

If, when votes are counted, no candidate reaches the threshold needed to win, the candidate with the fewest votes would immediately be eliminated. Voters who had picked that candidate as their first choice would have their votes count for their second choice.

Candidates are continually eliminated, and their votes shifted, until one candidate has a majority of the ballots cast.

All this happens immediately, and ranked-choice voting thus serves as an “instant runoff,” Garfield said, adding that should the proposal go through, Evanston would be the first city in Illinois to have ranked-choice voting.

New York City moved to a ranked-choice voting system in primary and special elections last year. According to FairVote, 55 cities, counties and states will use RCV, as it’s called, as of next month.

Hypothetical ranked-choice ballot, as shown on the FairVote website.

Evanston’s election rules, Garfield added, can be “ugly bonkers.”

He noted that different offices often require different thresholds to win, so some offices are decided in a primary but voters must come back to decide others in a general election.

Other advantages to ranked-choice voting, according to Garfield, include wider participation in candidate selection, since fewer voters often show up for primaries determining the final candidate pool; lower election costs for candidates, who would have to run in fewer contests; and election winners more representative of the community as a whole, since they ultimately must appeal to a broad swath of voters instead of concentrating on key voting demographics.

Third-party and minority candidates might also benefit, Garfield said.  

Reid, who said he was open to the objectives of ranked-choice voting, nevertheless asked whether the process in some constituencies favored moderate candidates and shut out progressive ones. Garfield said that it did indeed usually eliminate candidates on the extremes at each end of the political spectrum.

But Alisa Kaplan, Executive Director of Reform for Illinois, which is also pushing the ranked-choice effort in the state, said at the meeting that if progressive values did truly represent the community as a whole, that would be reflected in the vote counting.

Kaplan said that additional objections to ranked-choice voting usually came from party bosses as well as politicians uncomfortable with running elections in a newer manner. But Garfield noted that some incumbents reported appreciating the new system, since it allowed them to spend less time on campaigning and more time on governance.  

Mayor Daniel Biss praised ranked-choice voting in his May 20 State of the City address. Should the proposal ultimately be accepted by the City Council, the matter would be put before voters in a referendum in the November general election and would begin in Evanston in 2025. 

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  1. This is the wrong direction for Evanston. Yes, the current system of choose-one plurality voting is the worst single-winner voting method there is. However, ranked-choice instant runoff voting is at most only slightly better. There are much better options available like approval voting and STAR voting.

    Ranked-choice voting appeals to people because it feels like it give them a chance for nuanced expression. However, this is an illusion. Because of the way the votes are tabulated, very little of the information voters put on their ballots is actually reported in the results.

    Ranked-choice voting seems like it would meaningfully help third parties, but in single-winner elections, this is not born out by the evidence. Australia has used ranked choice voting for over a hundred years, but has maintained, effectively, a rigid two-party system.

    Ranked-choice voting seems like it would and solve the problem of vote splitting and make it safe to vote for your sincere favorite. It does so in cases where there are two clear front-runners (think Bush-Gore-Nader in 2000). But when there are more than two viable candidates, things get weird mathematically: the order in which candidates are eliminated becomes crucial to determining the winner, and in such cases, voting for your favorite candidate can help your least favorite candidate win, just like in choose-one voting.

    By contrast, with approval voting or STAR voting, it’s always safe to vote for your favorite candidate. Furthermore, both of those systems perform much better in election simulations than ranked-choice voting; they’re much better at picking the winner that maximally satisfies voter preferences.

    For anyone who fears alternative voting methods will shut out progressive candidates, this would not be expected in Evanston. Approval and STAR voting favor consensus-style candidates who are good at building bridges among different groups. Evanston’s electorate is largely progressive, so successful consensus-style candidates would likely be progressive. When approval voting was used in St. Louis, MO for the first time, the city elected its first Black female mayor, a staunch progressive.

    If the goal is an ideologically diverse city council, no single-winner system would ensure that; multi-winner elections and proportional representation would be needed. One form of proportional representation uses ranked ballots, but there are many other systems to choose from. Proportional representation would be a much bigger reform, requiring restructuring of Evanston’s ward system. Unless that is on the table, Evanston is stuck with single-winner elections, and approval voting and STAR voting are among the strongest options available.

    Approval voting (vote for as many candidates as you like, and the candidate with the most votes wins) is already used in Fargo, ND, St. Louis, MO, and might be adopted soon in Seattle, WA. It’s an exceptionally simple and inexpensive reform, merely changing the instructions on a ballot from “Vote for one” to “Vote for one or more.” The executive director of Center for Election Science, an organization that promotes approval voting, lives in Chicago, and would be an excellent contact for any future stories on voting reform in Evanston. STAR voting (voters give every candidate a score between 0 and 5, with an automatic runoff between the two top-scoring candidates) functions similarly to approval voting, but allows voters more nuanced expression and eliminates the need for a primary election.

    Learn more about how approval voting and ranked-choice voting compare:

    Learn more about how STAR voting and ranked-choice voting compare:

    The current system is inadequate. Choose-one plurality elections are a big part of why U.S. politics are so terrible. Choose-one elections are exceptionally vulnerable to vote splitting, divide-and-conquer politics, negative campaigning, entrenchment of establishment politicians, marginalization of minority communities, and toxic ideological polarization. Evanston could make history by becoming the first municipality in Illinois to chart a path forward with a better voting method, deepening democracy and setting an example for the rest of Illinois. But it is important to understand that ranked-choice instant runoff voting isn’t the only alternative. Make sure to consider other options.

  2. A system that has more people’s votes counted and has candidates spending less money and time on campaigning would be a win for our community. I hope it would mean more people who aren’t rich could afford to run for local office.

  3. Does this mean candidates in Evanston will have declare a party to run under (e.g., Democrat, Republican, etc.,) instead of being non-partisan? In the image it appears each is running under a party. Thank you.

    1. Hi Sally,

      Good question! Evanston’s elections would remain nonpartisan with Ranked Choice Voting — candidates would not have to declare a party. The image is just a stock picture.