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House panel debates ranked choice voting

University of Illinois students Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, walk past a mail-in ballot drop box that sits on the northwest corner of the university's Quad in Urbana.

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois lawmakers are debating whether the state should join a growing list of jurisdictions in the United States that allow voters to pick more than one candidate for an office, ranking them in order of preference rather than choosing just one.

Ranked choice voting, or as it’s sometimes called, “instant runoff voting,” actually has a long history in U.S. elections at the municipal level. But it has become more widely adopted in modern times, including in several states and dozens of municipalities.

Former Colorado House Speaker Terrance Carroll, left, and elections expert Amber McReynolds testify to a House committee about the experience of Colorado and other states with ranked choice voting, a system in which voters rank candidates in order of preference rather than choosing just one. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Peter Hancock)

“This is a better voting model to ensure all voices and choices are reflected in the election results,” Amber McReynolds, an elections expert and former elections director for the city and county of Denver, Colorado, told a House committee Wednesday. “It prioritizes and expands voter choice, it puts voters first, and it improves the voting experience for all.”

The proposals facing Illinois lawmakers are subject to change as they move through the legislative process.

In a general ranked choice voting system, voters mark candidates in the order of their preference in races with three or more candidates. The voter can rank as many candidates as they choose. In a five-person race, for example, a voter might rank one candidate first, another second and leave the sections of the other three candidates blank.

In the first round of counting, ballots are counted as they are now, with everyone’s vote going to their first choice.

If no one has achieved a majority, the person with the fewest votes is eliminated and their voters’ ballots are recounted with their votes going to their highest ranked candidate that is still in the race. 

This continues until a candidate earns a majority of votes counted in a given round of tabulation. This may not mean a majority of all people who voted in the election, since a ballot isn’t counted after all of their listed choices are eliminated.

According to the group FairVote, which advocates for ranked choice voting, there are 64 jurisdictions that allow that method of elections, including the states of Maine and Alaska, as well as two counties and 60 cities.

Colorado enacted a law in 2021 that allows municipalities to opt in to ranked choice voting in local elections. And Democratic parties in five states – Alaska, Kansas, Hawaii, Nevada and Wyoming – used it, wholly or partially, in their 2020 presidential primaries.

There are currently three bills pending in the General Assembly that would allow ranked choice voting in one form or another.

House Bill 2716, by Rep. Nabeela Syed, D-Inverness, would implement the system for elections for the General Assembly, governor and other statewide constitutional officers.

House Bill 2807, by Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, would establish ranked choice voting in presidential primaries in Illinois. And House Bill 3749, by Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, would allow municipalities to use ranked choice voting if the municipality’s chief election authority submits a written statement saying they have the ability to conduct such an election.

The committee discussion of the three bills was “subject matter” only, meaning they did not come for a vote. They have been re-referred to the House Rules Committee, meaning they may face an uphill battle to be passed into law in the current General Assembly.

Impact on elections

Supporters of ranked choice voting argue that it has several advantages over “plurality voting,” in which the person with the most votes after one round of counting wins regardless of whether that person has a majority.

One, they say, is that it reduces the number of “wasted” votes – that is, votes cast for candidates who drop out of the race after it’s too late to remove their name from the ballot. McReynolds said that is particularly true in presidential primaries in which a large field of candidates is winnowed down to just a few after the first few states cast ballots.

“In 2016, more than 2 million voters actually took the effort to vote for a candidate on the Republican side (after they had dropped out of the race). Their vote was lost,” she said. “In 2020, around 3 million to 4 million of Democrats – that’s the estimated (number) – had that same issue happen because lots of dropouts start happening after Super Tuesday in those periods of time.”

Under ranked choice voting, she said, even if a voter’s first choice is no longer in the race, their second or third choice could still count in subsequent rounds of counting.

Some advocates also say it can reduce the overall cost of certain elections by eliminating the need for runoffs, like the one coming up April 4 in the Chicago mayoral race.

“There are estimates that runoff elections cost the city between $25 and $35 million each time,” Buckner said. “And so this, if for no other reason, for financial reasons, being able to give us winners of both aldermanic and mayoral elections on the initial election date and to save some of those dollars and resources from the city and municipality.”

But Boone County Clerk Julie Bliss, speaking on behalf of the Illinois Association of County Clerks and Recorders, said there would be significant up-front costs for local officials to buy the voting machines and software needed for ranked choice voting, as well as the cost of printing and mailing what would be much larger ballots.

“Expense and funding absolutely is going to be a question that all the local election authorities are going to have for you,” she told the committee. “… The initial cost of implementing something like this is going to be higher.”

Brian Pryor, deputy director of election operations at the Illinois State Board of Elections, said there are currently no voting systems in Illinois that could implement ranked choice voting immediately.

“Some systems are capable of conducting ranked choice voting but they require additional components or software, which would need to be certified for use in Illinois,” he said. “There are currently 16 jurisdictions that have no capability of implementing ranked choice voting. These jurisdictions would need to procure new equipment.”

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Capitol News Illinois

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. It is funded by donations from the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government. Capitol News Illinois provides year-round, daily coverage of the Legislature, including committee hearings; state agencies and issues; state office holders; and the Illinois Supreme Court and legal matters.

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