Your NPR news source
Image of 21st Ward candidate Ronnie Mosley voting at Wendell Green Elementary at 1150 W 96th St, Tuesday, April 4, 2023.

Ronnie Mosley, candidate for the 21st Ward, votes at Wendell Green Elementary at 1150 W. 96th St. in April 2023.

Anthony Vazquez

What is ranked choice voting? And what could it mean for Illinois?

The 2024 elections are just seven months away, but a task force of state lawmakers, county officials and voters’ rights advocates are already thinking about the way Illinois residents will vote in the 2028 presidential primaries.

They’re mulling over a process called ranked choice voting, where voters can rank multiple candidates instead of choosing one candidate per party. The Illinois Ranked Choice Voting Task Force, which launched in January, has concluded its monthly meetings and is expected to release their report recommending whether to adopt the voting method to Illinois lawmakers in the coming weeks.

Ranked choice voting could be a monumental shift in how citizens, candidates and election authorities approach the electoral process in Illinois. Let’s break it down some more.

How does ranked choice voting work, exactly?

In an election where there are more than two candidates on the ballot, voters are given the opportunity to rank candidates in order of preference. If one candidate has 51% of the “first choice” votes, they win.

However, if no candidate receives a majority of “first choice” votes, the race is decided by an instant runoff vote. This is when the candidate with the fewest “first choice” votes is eliminated. Voters who ranked the eliminated candidate first will now have their “second choice” votes counted.

The process repeats itself, with the candidate earning the lowest rankings knocked out each round and their ballots redistributed, until one candidate gets at least 51% of the total vote.

Currently, Illinois uses what’s known as plurality voting, where voters pick one candidate and move on. The single candidate with the most number of votes wins, even if they did not earn more than half of all votes cast. Under a ranked choice system, a single candidate must earn more than half of the total number of votes cast in order to be declared victorious.

Where is ranked choice voting being used already?

As of February, roughly 50 jurisdictions nationwide have adopted ranked choice voting, according to election reform advocacy group FairVote. Maine and Alaska became the first states to adopt the method in 2016 and 2022, respectively.

Dozens of major cities – like New York City and San Francisco – have implemented or are planning to implement ranked choice voting for their municipal elections. This includes suburban Evanston, which plans to roll out the new system in April 2025.

What are the arguments for bringing ranked choice voting to Illinois?

Anika Bowie is a city council member in St. Paul, Minn., which has used ranked choice voting to elect their mayor and city council members for more than a decade.

In February, Bowie told the task force ranked choice allows candidates to gear their campaigns towards policy issues rather than political mudslinging since there often is no one “opponent” to rally against. FairVote Research and Policy Director Deb Otis calls this “positive campaigning.”

“A candidate might know, ‘I’m probably going to get 40% in the first round, but I’m going to need to be the second choice on 10% or more ballots,’ ” Otis said. “ ‘How do I get to be a second choice?’ It is not by attacking the voters’ first choice, it is by focusing on the issues that matter.”

Proponents of the new system also contend it’s more welcoming to women and candidates of color. Otis said her analysis of 448 ranked choice voting elections found that candidates of color tend to earn more votes whenever an eliminated candidate’s votes are transferred than white candidates.

A group of people stand at their voting partitions and vote on the final day of early voting for the Chicago mayoral runoff election at the downtown voting super site, Monday, April 3, 2023.

A group of people stand at their voting partitions and vote on the final day of early voting for the Chicago mayoral runoff election at the downtown voting super site, Monday, April 3, 2023.

Her study also found that when a candidate of color is eliminated, ballots are more likely to transfer to other candidates of the same race or ethnicity.

“Communities of color use RCV to build power when there are multiple candidates of the same race or ethnicity on the ballot, rather than dividing community support,” Otis wrote.

That sentiment rings true for Bowie. At the February task force meeting, she said she’s seen more diverse candidates throwing their hats in the ring for municipal races. And because of that, St. Paul voters elected an all-women city council for the first time ever. All seven members are under the age of 40 and six members are women of color.

“Being a woman of color amongst a majority woman of color city council, this just opens up doors for more people, and more opportunities to be [civically] engaged,” Bowie said.

Ranked choice voting proponents have long touted voter engagement and empowerment as a reason for adopting the method, especially as recent polls show that voters across America are concerned about preserving democracy heading into the 2024 general elections.

“I think voters are not feeling optimistic right now,” Otis said. “It’s time to look for solutions that give voters more of a voice in our elections, so that we all feel like our vote is really impactful.”

What are critics of ranked choice voting saying?

During a March meeting of the Illinois task force, Sangamon County Clerk Don Gray held up a copy of a ranked choice ballot from a New York City municipal election, showing members that the ballot page is 19 inches long. Gray said the ballots they use in Sangamon County are 14 inches long.

“It would certainly require us to have more expense in terms of requiring the longer and bigger size paper,” Gray said.

Money seems to be at the heart of much of the opposition to bringing ranked choice voting to Illinois. Several county clerks from across the state testified about how expensive it would be to update the current ballot tabulating machines to count ranked choice ballots. In Illinois, election results are counted by local county clerks and then sent to the state board of elections for final approval.

Most machines in Illinois will require a software update from a third-party vendor to count the ranked choice ballots. A few, smaller counties that use older machines would have to be replaced entirely, according to a report from the Ranked Choice Voting Resource center.

Without state dollars, local jurisdictions would have to foot the bill.

Gray is also concerned about the added time it will take voters to mark their ballots, which could lead to longer lines at the polling booths. He said this could mean setting up more polling booths and hiring more election judges to oversee them.

With the increased expenses and potential voter confusion at how to fill out their ballots, McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio said he doesn’t know what problem ranked choice voting would be solving.

“I think cats and dogs understand what being outnumbered is,” Tirio said. “That’s one of the things that makes our democracy so accessible to all, is that we all understand if this candidate gets one more than that candidate, then that first candidate wins.”

Mawa Iqbal covers Illinois politics for WBEZ.

This story is part of “The Democracy Solutions Project,” a partnership among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. Together, we’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

The Latest
The inspector general’s office urged Johnson to create a task force aimed at “preventing, identifying, and eliminating extremist and anti-government activities and associations within CPD.”
A greater share of Chicago area Republicans cast their ballots by mail in March compared to the 2022 primary, but they were still vastly outpaced by Democrats in using a voting system that has become increasingly popular.
As the 2024 presidential election approaches, officials, advocates and experts have expressed concern over misinformation and disinformation about candidates and elections in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois.
In interviews with WBEZ, several decried the length of sentence the 80-year-old could face, while a handful of others said he deserves significant time in prison.

From 1968 to today, volunteers in Chicago aim to connect visitors to their city, and to see some of the convention action themselves