Chicago Should Take a Hard Pass on Ranked Choice Voting

February 23, 2023

Chicago's election framework needs some fixes, not a wholesale change

Chicago voters will go to the polls on Tuesday, February 28, for a mayoral election which will be seen as a referendum on Lori Lightfoot. Though a deeply unpopular incumbent, under Chicago’s election framework, Ms. Lightfoot still stands a chance at winning outright, surviving the initial round of voting to avoid a runoff, and being returned to office.

While the prospect of Lightfoot’s reelection causes unease among many voters, should she be put back in office, it would not defy the gravity of Chicago politics: Every incumbent mayor seeking reelection since Richard M. Daley has been victorious at the ballot box. Yet despite her unpopularity and incompetence, there is a possibility Lightfoot could reclaim office under Chicago’s “majority electoral system” election format, which sets the condition candidates vying for office are required to attain 50-percent-plus-one-vote. Should no candidate gain the minimum 50 percent, a second round of voting is held between the two candidates who received the most votes in the initial balloting.

If we set aside the historical corruption surrounding elections for which Chicago is notorious, this majority electoral system has served Chicago quite well. According to Alderman Matt Martin (47), however, Chicago’s election institution is in dire need of significant change. A progressive who is in league with Democratic Socialists on the City Council, Martin introduced a resolution clamoring for hearings to weigh the swapping of Chicago’s current electoral format with Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). Though the motion was tabled and sent to the Rules Committee, Martin has vowed to pursue changes to voting.

Unlike Chicago’s majority electoral structure, a RCV arrangement allows voters to rank candidates in order of their preference — customarily five candidates — from first to last on one ballot. Should one candidate amass a majority of first-choice ranks, the contender is the out-and-out winner. However, if no candidate acquires a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate earning the least number of votes is purged from the ballot and voters who selected the candidate eliminated will have their second-ranked choice accepted in the ousted candidate’s place. This method recurs until one candidate arises as a clear winner, often winning with a considerable amount of second- and third-choice votes.

Supporters of RCV often claim the voting format will awaken Chicago’s moribund voters, limit the influence of money in elections, lower elections cost, improve the substance of a campaign, and create a pathway for second-tier political parties to become mainstream.

While Chicago does have problems with its election framework — the Windy City would benefit maximally from more voters turning out to the polls and a GOP of sufficient strength to tussle with Democrats — adopting RCV would only deepen the problem it intended to solve.

Though RCV has its unflappable defenders, it is a voting design which comes with its own set of problems. First and foremost, it is an electoral system which is confusing. While a fundamental tenant of RCV is it provides voters a broad range of candidates from which to rank on a ballot, this maxim is distorted. Though it may sound appealing, the question of voter sophistication is important in elections and low-information voters do exist. Although some voters may have a possess ideological information — such as party affiliation — this does not necessarily mean a voter will grasp complexities of issue positions. Research has also shown ballot errors increase with the complicated design of ballots or a greater quantity of candidates from which to choose.

In addition to being a source of confusion, RCV defies the will of the majority and tends to hand victories to candidates who acquire a non-majority of ballots cast. A circumstance commonly referred to as “ballot exhaustion,” studies have shown voters do not consistently rank up to five candidates in a RCV format.

If, for example, a voter ranks only two candidates and both are stripped from the first and second voting round, this prompts the elevation of a candidate to office who was never a first choice among a majority of voters, but rather the majority of legitimate votes cast in the final round of the election. Though RCV may produce an electoral victor, the influence of a majority of voters is stamped out.

Furthermore, RCV lengthens the election cycle. Though RCV has been embraced by several states and dozens of municipalities across the country, one should consider the extended period required before a winner was declared in several races.

In one instance in which RCV was utilized for the Oakland, California, mayoral race in 2010, utter chaos ensued. An election in which the candidate who received the most first-place votes, Don Perada, lost the election to Jean Quan, who was carried into office on the strength of 25,000 second- and third-place votes. Worse, Quan was finally anointed the victor after nine rounds of redistribution of the votes. More recently, Eric Adams was elected mayor after a two-week delay in New York City.

Chicago’s election system is imperfect, but it does not require a complete overhaul to fix. If Alderman Martin was earnest about forwarding suggestions to correct the defects in Chicago’s election format, his venture over election reform should begin not with the attempt to usher in RCV, but with moving Chicago’s peculiar February election date to November. Long explained as a relic of the "Machine", shifting Chicago’s general election date to November would align the city with most of the rest of the country and yield a convenience to Chicago voters as they go to the voting booth to cast ballots for statewide and national elections.

If Mr. Martin was committed to perfecting Chicago’s elections, a second effort he could consider is lowering the minimum number of signatures required for office. Currently, to become eligible for the ballot in Chicago, candidates for City Council require 473 signatures, while running for mayor requires 12,000. In place of current signature prerequisites, elections for alderman should be lowered to 200 and signatures for mayor should be lowered to 5,000. By reducing the minimum signature threshold, the range of candidates from which Chicago voters could choose is broadened.

Akin to reducing signature requirements and expanding voter choice, Chicago is best served by carefully reviewing and reworking the precepts governing challenges to candidate filings. Though we should be mindful of the corruption often baked into Chicago elections, lawmakers seeking to extend their tenures routinely abuse legal devices to challenge opponents’ filings for office. A terrible misuse of power, the reflexive challenges to candidate filings over the validity of signatures discourages potential candidates from seeking public office and has brought forth a small-scale industry of removing potential opponents from the ballot.

Chicago would also gain significantly by conducting a massive purge of voter rolls. A method of expelling the names of individuals who have died, moved, or become ineligible to vote from a voter registry, Chicago’s method of maintaining a list of eligible voters is outdated. It is a critical responsibility of the city to keep voter rolls as accurate and up-to-date as possible. Purging a voter roll is not voter suppression. On the contrary, maintaining au fait voter rolls assists with mail-in balloting, direct voter contact, minimizes wait times at polls, and simplifies post-election procedures by reducing the number of provisional ballots cast. Most importantly, it is a potent tool to thwart voter fraud.

Finally, the State of Illinois should reverse its policy of mandatory voter registration. Enrolling to vote should be entirely voluntary. For example: Citizens renewing with the Department of Motor Vehicles or applying for a state identification card are automatically registered to vote. A bill authorizing the automatic voter registration system in 2018 has been exposed to have registered over 500 voters who otherwise would have fallen short of eligibility requirements, allowing non-citizens to cast ballots.

If Chicago is considering revisions to its election system, the effort should always be guided by the principles of expanding access to the vote and ensuring a system which encourages greater voter participation in elections. Alderman Martin’s proposal falls short of both.

A proposal with no compelling logic, it is fair to speculate on the motives behind Martin’s resolution. Social justice activism too often manifests in a vote of no confidence in our revered political systems. Martin’s proposal does not seek incremental reform, nor does it base its rationale for change on extensive evidence to the efficacy of RCV be produced before rendering its verdict. Rather, Martin, an innate social-justice activist, is simply demanding a complete overhaul of the election format.

Chicago’s election framework is in need of reform, not a complete reconstruction. It is possible to achieve reasonable reform without razing the current system. Despite Mr. Martin’s claims, RCV is an idea filled with negative consequences, primarily an adverse impact on the level and quality of voter participation in elections. While every effort should be made to fix what taints Chicago’s elections, RCV should be shelved and the City Council should consider reforms which will produce the proper working order for the city’s elections.

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