Voices & Choices

Ranked choice voting is the game changer Chicago’s mayoral race needs

Ranked choice voting is the game changer Chicago’s mayoral race needs

Forget the Bulls. With more than three starting lineups-worth of players already courting the high-profile Chicago mayor seat, the February election will be the game to watch this season.

Contenders wasted no time after Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced earlier this month that he would not seek a third term. What began as a competitive race among half a dozen qualified candidates has swelled to a whopping 17 officially in the race with another 11 “considering” the possibility, according to The Chicago Sun Times list as of Sept. 23.

As columnist Phil Kadner suggested in a recent piece, there may be 99 candidates in the race by the time the filing period closes in November.

Of course, not every candidate comes in with MVP potential.

Bill Daley’s familial ties - his father and brother served as longtime city mayors - and experience as Obama’s chief of staff and Commerce Secretary win him points, while Gery Chico, Richard Daley’s chief of staff and former school board president, also earn top marks among political commentators.

But other well-established names in the city’s political scene are viable, qualified contenders: former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot; former police superintendent Gerry McCarthy and former schools chief and city hall budget director Paul Vallas. Several former aldermen and county representatives still contemplating runs could change the court dynamics considerally, too.

A competitive race is not a bad one, at least not from a small-d, democratic standpoint. After all, close games tend to be the most exciting.

But here’s the downside: a large number of serious candidates will draw votes, which will inevitably lead to a runoff election. The city uses a nonpartisan election with a top two runoff if no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the vote. Though it’s only been used once - in 2015 -  since mayoral elections went nonpartisan in 1995, a runoff seems imminent in 2019 given the sheer number of candidates.

Even a 20 percent plurality for the top vote-getter, as predicted by Sun Times columnist Lynn Sweet, looks optimistic as the list of names on the February ballot grows.

And while turnout jumped in the 2015 runoff (compared to the February election) between Emanuel and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (currently among the “maybes” for 2019), lower turnout characterizes most runoff elections.

The game boils down to a playoff between two candidates that most voters didn’t root for to begin with, played in an empty arena because all the fans were too tired or disenchanted to stay until the end.

Sounds like the perfect way to pick a champion, or in this case, the city’s chief executive with state and national influence, no?

Ranked choice voting changes the game.

Rather than choose a single candidate from a dizzying list, voters rank their preferences. If no one wins 50 percent of first choices, the bottom candidate gets benched and those votes redistributed based on second choices, with subsequent rounds until a champion emerges with at least 50 percent of votes.

The “instant” nature of the runoff eliminates the second, several months later go-round that risks losing voters and costs taxpayers more.

Chicago’s competitive and diverse political scene grows without fear of vote-splitting or spoilers. And democracy reigns as the defending champion.

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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