In this year’s mayoral election, Chicagoans face an unnecessarily difficult choice because of how we vote.
No matter who ultimately wins — coming in first or second on Feb. 26 and then winning a runoff race on April 2 — the outcome will have silenced the true voices of thousands and thousands of voters.
For centuries, Americans have voted in a “first-past-the-post” electoral system: Citizens cast their ballots, and the candidate who receives a plurality (the most votes) wins. Sometimes, as in Chicago’s mayoral race, a runoff is added in which the top two candidates compete for a majority of the vote.
But this doesn’t work well — democracy is not best served — when, as in the case of this mayoral election, there are just so many candidates. When there are 14 candidates, how can the current system possibly gauge which candidate enjoys the broadest level of support among all the voters?
Short answer: It can’t.
That is, not without ranked-choice voting, which is used successfully in other cities. In an RCV election, the voters rank all the candidates in order of personal preference. Then, on Election Day, the total number of “first” ballots (the ballots where a candidate is a voter’s top choice) for each candidate are counted.
If no candidate has received a majority of these “first choice” votes, then the candidate who received the fewest “first choice” votes is eliminated — but his or her voters are not! In the next round of counting, the votes of those voters are automatically assigned to their preferred second choice candidate.
This process continues — second choice, third choice, etc. — until one candidate has received a majority of the total vote.
The RCV system is the most accurate gauge of true majority support available to us. Especially in mayoral elections with many candidates, RCV allows “losing” voters to retain their voice in our democracy and help decide the final outcome.
For decades, RCV has been used in cities such as Minneapolis and San Francisco, making the voting process there more representative than ever — without sacrificing the ease of voting. In Minneapolis, more than 90 percent of voters describe RCV as “simple,” and roughly two-thirds support the continued use of RCV in city elections. In San Francisco, RCV has been linked to a “positive voter experience” and an “increase in voter turnout.”
But this is not the case in Chicago.
Toni Preckwinckle, a favorite to come in first or second in the Feb. 26 election, getting her into the April 2 runoff race, is polling at 16 percent. Her most likely opponent in the runoff race, Bill Daley, is polling at about 14 percent.
This means that voters in the runoff election likely will have to choose between two candidates who together on Feb. 26 received less than a third of the total votes. There is no guarantee, that is to say, that Chicago’s next mayor will be the preferred choice of the people.
An RCV system would go a long way in replacing political toxicity with genuine civic discourse — and a renewed faith in our government.
When voters no longer feel like they’re choosing between “the lesser of two evils,” they are more likely to analyze multiple candidates on their merits and reward the one who truly deserves a vote. Likewise, negative ads become less effective — and, therefore, less common — when candidates aren’t only looking to fire up their respective bases, and are instead courting a broader swath of voters.
There has been little conversation about RCV in Chicago, but the 2019 mayoral election has exposed the system’s necessity. It’s time for change: Ranked-choice voting brings us one step closer to democracy.
Philip Hinkes, a Chicagoan, is president of Every Vote Counts’ Yale University chapter.
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