From left, ranked choice voting advocates Alisa Kaplan, Jane Neumann, Andrew Szilva, Rebecca Ratliff and Larry Garfield gathered for an election night watch party at Ridgeville Tavern on Sherman Avenue. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Ranked choice voting received an overwhelming vote of approval from Evanston residents on Election Day, with more than 82% of ballots cast in favor of the new voting system for local consolidated elections, according to results tabulated by the Cook County Clerk’s Office.

The change will be implemented in April 2025 and affect elections for mayor, City Council and the city clerk. Evanston will now become the first municipality in Illinois to enact ranked choice voting, as well.

Under ranked choice voting, Evanston residents will be able to rank candidates for public office in order of preference. If a candidate receives more than 50% of first-choice votes, that person then wins the election outright. But when no candidate receives a true majority of first-choice votes, the person with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated from contention.

At that point, supporters of the dropped candidate will have their votes go to their second choice. That process repeats itself until one person receives at least 50% of all first-choice votes.

“I’m not going to attack the other candidate so much that somebody who likes them would never pick me as their second choice,” Mayor Daniel Biss told WTTW last week. “And so I think not only will the campaigns be more positive and more constructive, but also that election system tends to pick elected officials who are better at working with others, especially with others who don’t always agree with them.”

City Council approved a resolution to put ranked choice voting on the November ballot at a meeting in July with a 7-0 vote. Council Members Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, and Devon Reid, 8th Ward, abstained from that vote. At the time, the two of them, along with First Ward Council Member Clare Kelly, said they felt like the city rushed through the process of putting a referendum on the ballot without enough public input.

RCV For Evanston, a volunteer group of organizers in support of ranked choice voting, spent the last several months canvassing voters across town to raise awareness about the ballot measure and explain what it would change. Campaign Manager Rebecca Ratliff told the RoundTable that some 12 volunteers spoke to an estimated 3,000 local voters while knocking on doors since July.

“I came into this group in August, and I saw that there was this great coalition that had already formed of groups in Evanston that really cared about doing it,” Ratliff said. “So often, we work really hard on candidates, things like that, but this is something where we passed this, and it is a tangible benefit to Evanston.”

Supporters of the measure, like Biss and Ratliff, say that ranked choice voting improves voter turnout, gives candidates from marginalized backgrounds a fairer shot at winning and decreases animosity in campaigns. New York City held its first ranked choice election in 2021, when voter turnout shot up by 29% and residents there elected one of the most diverse City Councils in history and the city’s second Black mayor.

The RoundTable caught up with the group RCV For Evanston volunteers Tuesday night at their election results watch party at Ridgeville Tavern. Those ranked choice supporters said that once Evanston voters understood the system and its benefits, they were all for the change.

“People we were talking to either knew about ranked choice voting, and thought favorably of it just generically, or they were interested and intrigued and wanted to read more about it,” RCV For Evanston canvasser Jane Neumann said. “We were getting so little negative on the door knocking, and that was a signal right then.”

RCV For Evanston Campaign Manager Rebecca Ratliff displays the referendum results on her phone. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Plus, Neumann and others were blown away by the support they received during the early voting period at the Morton Civic Center too. Last week, they encountered a busload of Evanston Township High School students who were voting for the first time and excited to support ranked choice voting, according to Neumann.

“I’m feeling really, really good,” said Ratliff when news of the victory came in. “One of my phone bankers reached out to me and was like ‘It looks like you guys crushed it, fantastic.’ And I was like ‘I haven’t seen the results yet,”’ Ratliff said. “We’ve been feeling really optimistic because everyone we’ve been talking to, it seems like they’re in support. … But there was still a worry of ‘Did you reach enough people? What if people didn’t know about it?’ But this is wonderful.”

What’s next?

So far, Reid has been the most outspoken critic of ranked choice voting. In a Tuesday phone call with the RoundTable, he said he believed the referendum was not “legally binding” because the city has yet to establish a clear plan for what the new ballots will look like in 2025.

“If a majority of voters say yes, they want this, I think then what we need to do is actually sit down and do this right, and really have a deeper discussion about whether it’s ranked choice voting or another system,” Reid said. “But if the majority of folks vote yes for this tonight, I would almost stake my future candidacy on this: that ranked choice voting will not be implemented here in Evanston as a result of the vote today for this referendum.”

Illinois law requires that all ballots follow certain procedures and expectations based on the existing voting system. Since Evanston approved ranked choice voting on Tuesday, though, the city will have to sit down with the Illinois State Board of Elections and Cook County Board of Elections to figure out how to set up ranked choice local election ballots in Evanston, according to Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings.

But, unlike Reid’s take on the legal implications of ranked choice voting, Cummings told the RoundTable that the referendum is, in fact, “binding on the city,” which he also wrote in a memo to City Council members in June. A previous ruling from former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan found that local municipalities in the state could choose to enact ranked choice voting through a ballot measure if they wanted.

“It’s kind of confusing for everybody, to be honest, because we are the first,” Cummings said, referring to Evanston’s new status as the first municipality in the state to approve ranked choice voting.

Other towns and states, like New York, San Francisco and Alaska, have gone through that same process of working with other local and state governments to establish the new ballots, RCV For Evanston volunteers said. Plus, ranked choice voting is a small, positive step toward a more effective democratic system here in town, Ratliff and her team said.

“At a time when we’re all worried about democracy for a lot of different reasons, this is something we can do right at home to make ours stronger,” Reform for Illinois Executive Director and RCV For Evanston volunteer Alisa Kaplan said.

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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