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Ranked-choice voting advocate Solomon Lieberman explains why he believes Evanstonians should vote "Yes" on the local referendum measure.

Here’s a tale of two cities to get us started. 

First, Chicago: In April 2019, Lori Lightfoot defeated Toni Preckwinkle in a predictably low-turnout runoff for the mayor’s office. I voted for Lori, both times. During the campaign she presented herself as a smart, purposeful leader who wouldn’t be shouted down by chest-thumping mercenaries of political privilege. But after digging into the election results with an eye toward political reform, I started asking the same question: Was it more Lori or the election system itself that beat all those challengers? 

It depends who answered. Several pundits and gadflies said her victory was owed to Jerry Joyce, a spoiler-candidate who “stole” votes from Bill Daley which made room for Lightfoot and Preckwinkle to break through the crowded field. This has some truth, but like most autopsies of American elections—in cities and states, red, blue, and purple—it’s only valuable if performed in service of strengthening the elections still to come. Lightfoot likely agrees

Same goes here in Evanston, where, on February 23, 2021, Daniel Biss grabbed 73% of the vote in the lower-turnout primary, which avoided a higher-turnout runoff against either Lori Keenan or Sebastian Nalls. Claiming victory that evening, Biss described the majority he garnered as “a statement of support not just for a person, but for an agenda and a vision of what we can do together.” This big win was all Biss, right?

Probably. Mayor Biss is as popular as they come, with a brain as big as his commitment to public service is consistent, but those personal bonafides and the broad support they attract must not distract us from the electoral problems they might transcend. As Biss personally testified, the Evanson election system that made him a majority-winner could do much more to boost turnout, encourage diversity, and align our communities with our elected leaders (not to mention protect against the troubling pluralities that now plague Chicago.)

It’s time to change how we vote. We must ensure our elections can produce majority-winners, promote positive campaigning, foster diverse candidates and ideas, and empower the electorate to hold the winners accountable. A piece to that progressive puzzle is on your Evanston ballot right now. It’s called ranked-choice voting, and as a new Evanstonian I’m excited to support the campaign, explain how it works, and persuade you to vote Yes, on or before November 8th.

Ranked-choice voting: How it works

In our current system you pick your favored candidate—often described as the “lesser of two (or more) evils”—and vote. If a candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, regardless of worrisome turnout, we have a winner; if not, get ready for another election, another round of mud-slinging, and the potential for an unrepresentative result.  

In a ranked-choice system you have the option to rank all of the candidates. If a candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, we have a winner; if not, our second- or third-place votes are allocated until a candidate gets a majority—it’s called an “instant-runoff,” and it works great, from New York City to Alaska. If you want to learn more about how “RCV” works, watch this.

Ranked-Choice Voting: Why you should vote Yes for Evanston

There are several reasons, three of which are paramount for me: 

  1. Ranked-choice produces a majority-winner, securely, and can maximize our local turnout trends. This will strengthen the social contract between elected representatives and us voters who consent to be represented.
  2. Ranked-choice changes the governing incentives, for candidates and voters, because a smidgen of plurality can’t win anymore. If you want to lead, you need to secure a majority. If you want a majority, you need to care about how everyone ranks you. And if you need to care about everyone for electoral purposes, you need to care about them legislatively, too. 
  3. Ranked-choice will strengthen our connection to nonpartisan reform, coast to coast. Ours is a democracy at a crossroads, and while the issues and idiosyncrasies of other communities and cultures can seem remote as you hustle across Central to catch the Edens to work, or down Dodge to pick up your kids from school, the choices we Americans make in Evanston, Illinois, can and will impact the choices that other Americans make in Evanston, Wyoming. 

And maybe Chicago will follow our lead. All signs point to another bloated, confusing field of a dozen-plus mayoral candidates next year, which means yet another first-past-the-post mud fight—and barely one-third of voters will even bother to place a bet. 

Let’s light the way, Evanston. Vote Yes for ranked-choice voting.

Evanston Now welcomes guest essays from our readers on local issues.

Solomon Lieberman has spent the last 15 years building and leading local and national nonprofit organizations focused on journalism, education, civic engagement and nonpartisan political reform.

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1 Comment

  1. Great article for such a pertinent subject.
    Another reason I’d add to your list of reasons to vote for RCV; campaigning gets more civil. Mud-slinging becomes counter-productive for a candidate that isn’t be your first choice, but still really wants to be your second choice.

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