In less than a month, Evanston will decide on ranked-choice voting. The League of Women Voters of Evanston announced its support of the move during a virtual discussion it hosted on Tuesday, Oct. 11. 

Executive Director of Reform for Illinois Alisa Kaplan (above) and Mayor Daniel Biss led the League of Women Voters of Evanston’s discussion about ranked choice voting. Credit: Gina Castro

In July the City Council unanimously supported placing a referendum on the Nov. 8 general election ballot asking voters if they want ranked-choice voting (RCV) or not.

If passed, it would come into play in the mayoral, city clerk and city council elections beginning in April 2025, according to the city referendum.

Cook County, which oversees Evanston’s elections, would implement ranked-choice for the city, said Executive Director of Reform for Illinois Alisa Kaplan. The city, and possibly the county, will launch an education plan to ensure voters understand how to complete ranked-choice voting ballots if the referendum passes, Kaplan explained. 

Mayor Daniel Biss and Kaplan, both supporters of ranked-choice voting, led the conversation. Biss said he was speaking as an individual, not in his his role as mayor.

“You’re going to get what the will of the people is,” Kaplan said about the benefits of RCV. “So it’s just about being more democratic.”

“With a lowercase ‘d,’ ” Mayor Biss added.  

How RCV works

As of now, Evanstonians, like all other voters in Illinois, vote for one candidate for each local office election. But ranked-choice voting enables voters to rank candidates from most preferred to least.

If none of the candidates win a majority of the votes cast in a local office election, then the least-favored candidate would be automatically eliminated and those votes would be allocated to voters’ next (second-place) choice.

The votes for the least-favored candidates will continue to be transferred to voters’ next choice until one of the candidates gains the majority of the votes.

An example Biss used to explain the process was the 2000 presidential election in Florida. Many have accused activist Ralph Nader of costing Al Gore the presidency against George W. Bush, who won the election by 537 votes, by siphoning votes from fellow Democrat Gore.

If that election has used ranked-choice voting, Nader would have been eliminated and his 97,488 votes would have been distributed to the voters’ next choice. It would have changed the outcome of Florida’s 2000 presidential election, Biss said.

“In a closely divided election where nobody has a majority, you might then want to ask, ‘Hey, what were people’s second and third choices?’ ” Biss said. “And that’s what ranked-choice voting does.”

It’s in the best interest of voters to rank all candidates from most- to least-preferred rather than rank a portion of the candidates, explained Northwestern University Political Science Professor James Druckman.

The RoundTable spoke with Druckman before Tuesday’s meeting. He was not a speaker at the event.

“If there’s somebody you really don’t want to get elected, putting them last, you’d be helping any other candidate beat that candidate,” Druckman said. “So I think it would certainly be in your interest to list them [the voter’s least preferred candidate].”

When a voter ranks their least-preferred candidate last, they are not endorsing that candidate, Druckman explained. Whereas, choosing to rank only a portion of the candidates would mean the voter is indifferent to the unranked candidates.

The benefits

Last year, New York City had its first ranked-choice voting election for its top five choices for mayor and city council, which helped lead to a 29% increase in voter turnout. The city elected one of its most diverse city councils in history and its second Black mayor.

“This isn’t a totally untried, crazy thing that has dropped from the sky,” Kaplan said. “Ranked-choice voting has been in use in certain jurisdictions for many decades. It’s used in some form or another in countries like Australia, Ireland and New Zealand. It’s being used currently in more than 20 counties and cities around the country.”

Kaplan explained that ranked-choice voting poses benefits for voters, candidates and the election system.

“One of the big advantages of ranked-choice voting is you should have to think less strategically,” Kaplan said. “You should be able to decide to vote for who you want to vote for, instead of for the lesser of two evils, or the person that you think has the best chance of winning. It’s about letting voters express their voice in a more powerful way.”

Unconventional candidates are more likely to run for office, too, she said, because they will feel like they have a chance in the election.

A systemic benefit is that it would replace the primary election, removing the cost. 

The negatives

Most of the negatives claimed about ranked-choice voting have been its potential to confuse voters. But the key to avoiding that confusion is to educate the public. In New York City, an exit poll of nearly 1,700 Democratic voters showed 78% understood the voting process very well.

It’s possible that confusion surrounding the process can impact voters’ trust of the election. Yet Kaplan said that is a theoretical possibility, and she isn’t aware of RCV causing distrust.

Biss confirmed that the process will most likely delay election results.

The issues with the current voting system and ranked-choice voting do overlap. For instance, both processes elect an individual to represent the many, Druckman said. Other experts, like University of Minnesota Politics Professor Larry Jacobs, have pointed out that RCV doesn’t close the voting gap between white affluent voters and voters of color. The RoundTable reached out to Jacobs for a comment, but he didn’t respond in time for deadline.

“There’s really no voting system that is ideal,” Druckman said. “Every voting system is always kind of a trade off.”

Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the Evanston RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative...

Join the Conversation

2 Comments

The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. You explained very clearly how it works and the benefits and concerns. As a Medill grad myself, I like to think you learned some of those skills at Northwestern. I hope readers will listen in on the next discussion of ranked choice voting online October 25 at 7 pm, sponsored by the Democratic Party of Evanston, when one of those New York City new council members will explain how RCV worked to bring her into public office.