Ranking choices could lead to better election results
Feb. 26, 2019, could have been a transformational moment for Chicago with a mayoral election composed of nine diverse candidates.
Voters stemming from all backgrounds, races and political affiliations traveled to the nearest ballot box to vote for their preferred candidate. As results trickled in and the ballots were officially counted, it appeared that Lori Lightfoot had won the election -- but with only 17% of votes in an election that saw historically low turnout. In less than two months, Lightfoot would go toe-to-toe against Toni Preckwinkle in a runoff election. But that election had even lower turnout and a high cost. This whole process must have left many Chicagoans wondering, does my vote really matter?
For one of America's most vibrant and populous cities, Chicago's voting system doesn't seem particularly conducive for democracy. Instead, what residents observed was an election that cost over $28 million and was filled with relentless personal attacks and negative campaigning. Though many surely blamed the candidates, it's actually our outdated system that caused such a low-turnout, high-cost, divisive race.
But here's the good news: the fix is simple, cheap and proven to be effective. It's called Ranked-Choice Voting and, if Chicago used it, it would provide all the benefits of a runoff election with none of the costs. It would lead to higher turnout and voter enthusiasm, and it would even change campaign incentives to ensure that candidates didn't run negative campaigns.
In fact, this system is so good and so easy that it can easily be applied to many more elections in the United States, beyond just that of Chicago mayor.
Consider the current state of play. Voter turnout for midterm and presidential elections remains slightly above half of the voting population. Even worse, voter turnout for mayoral and local elections barely average 25% of the voting cohort -- and that was true in both the first Chicago election and the runoff.
Given such low turnout rates, it's clear that most people think that voting takes too much time, that the election has been decided by powerful interests and most importantly, that their votes simply don't matter.
Here's the sad part: those people aren't always wrong. When most voters' first-choice candidates don't even factor into the runoff election, why would it matter if they go to the polls in the first place? And, in other elections, when folks are presented with the ability to make only one choice -- which often becomes "who do you dislike least?" -- it feels nearly pointless to vote.
Ranked-choice voting solves this problem and actually empowers all citizens by strengthening their voice in the political process. To put it simply: voters get to rank their favorite candidates in order of preference rather than getting only one choice. Then, if a voter's first choice candidate does not have a lot of other support, their vote is transferred to the second choice and so forth.
This keeps going until we can be sure that a candidate is supported by a majority of the vote share: more than 50 percent.
Thus, ranked-choice voting ensures that everyone can have a tangible influence in an election -- and we don't even need to have a second, runoff election to get to 50%.
To be sure, many people wonder how such a process could unravel. But the beauty of ranked-choice voting is that people are already familiar with ranking preferences: just as they decide which restaurant to eat at or which movie to watch, voters would have the power to select the candidates they like best under ranked-choice voting.
Ranked-choice voting is gaining steam across the country and where it's been used, people love it. People have been voting with ranked-choice systems from Maine and Kansas to Wyoming and San Francisco and the results are stunning.
The vitriolic tone of campaigns have toned down, more diverse candidates run for and win elected seats, political participation and enthusiasm increases and most critically, voters feel that their voices are amplified in the political process.
Within the past 20 years, however, there has been a sense of urgency to restore the power of each individual voice in the political process. That makes switching to ranked-choice voting imperative. The longer we wait, the more people will feel disengaged with the process, and the more expensive, negative campaigns we'll have to sit through. It's time that Chicago, Illinois and the United States adopt ranked-choice voting, for the sake of our current and future generations.
Jason Harrow is executive director and chief counsel of EqualCitizens. US, a national foundation devoted to strengthening democracy by promoting equality, Victor Shi, of Chicago, is an Equal Citizens Fellow.