When Evanstonians go to the polls in 2025 to choose a mayor and City Council members, they won’t be voting the traditional way: picking a single candidate in each race. Instead, they will rank candidates in order of preference. That’s because last November, Evanston became the first community in Illinois to adopt a relatively new electoral system called ranked-choice voting, joining more than 20 U.S. cities — including New York, San Francisco, and Minneapolis — and three states in using a method that proponents say is more inclusive of all voters.

“It decreases the likelihood people will say ‘My vote doesn’t matter’ or that they’re ‘voting for the lesser of two evils,’ ” Evanston mayor Daniel Biss says. “Ranked-choice voting is a better way to ensure everyone’s voice gets heard, and it opens the doors to the electoral process for people who have historically felt that ‘these options are not for me.’ ”

A ranked-choice election works like this: If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the one with the fewest is eliminated. The second-choice picks on those ballots are distributed to the remaining candidates. If there’s still no one with a majority, the process repeats, with the next-lowest candidate eliminated and the highest-ranked survivor on each of those ballots getting those votes. This continues until someone receives a majority.

Because politicians are reluctant to change the system that put them in office — Evanston’s switch came through a voter referendum — ranked choice has gained little traction in Illinois. In 2019, state senator Laura Murphy, a Des Plaines Democrat, sponsored a bill to use the method for electing state officials and legislators. It died in committee. In Chicago, 47th Ward alderman Matt Martin has suggested adopting it for municipal elections as a means of increasing voter participation and saving money by eliminating runoffs. (In 2019, mayoral and aldermanic runoffs cost the city about $31 million, according to a Chicago Board of Elections spokesperson.) The City Council has yet to take any action, but Martin plans to hold a hearing this year to examine ranked choice.

“It helps activate portions of the electorate too often underrepresented when it comes to elected leaders, specifically women and minorities,” Martin says. “It’s a way to ensure you can vote for the individuals you are most excited about, but also identify your second, third, and fourth choice so as to reduce strategic voting.” In other words, you don’t have to cast your sole vote for someone other than your top pick just because they have a better chance of defeating a less desirable candidate.

Madeleine Doubek, executive director of Change Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for ranked choice, contends that the method reduces polarization by forcing candidates to appeal to wider constituencies: “Electing someone who receives more than 50 percent of public support incentivizes them to represent the majority of voters rather than extremists.”

She points to Alaska’s first ranked-choice vote  as an example of how the method can also give candidates with less money and fewer political connections a shot at winning office: In a U.S. House of Representatives special election last August, Democrat Mary Peltola defeated Sarah Palin, becoming the first Alaska Native in Congress.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams was elected in a ranked choice election, too. Both he and Peltola received the most first-round votes in their contests, so they likely would have still won under a traditional system. But in 2018, the first year that Maine employed ranked choice, Democrat Jared Golden won a U.S. House seat despite finishing second in the first round. Right-wing provocateur Paul LePage, who was twice elected governor of that state with pluralities, was defeated in his comeback attempt in November under ranked choice.

After losing her election, Palin called ranked choice “the weirdest, most convoluted, and most complicated voter suppression tool that Alaskans could have come up with.” However, an exit poll, conducted by the nonpartisan nonprofit Alaskans for Better Elections showed that 85 percent of voters thought the system was “simple.” (The latest state to adopt ranked choice is Nevada, where it passed in a November referendum.)

Although ranked choice voting is considered a “good government” innovation, that doesn’t guarantee it will produce results that please its progressive supporters. Biss and Doubek both claim the method discourages negative campaigning because candidates might lose second- or third-choice votes in the process. But a 2021 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that spending on attack ads increased significantly in Maine following the implementation of ranked choice there.

And had it been in place decades ago, ranked choice might have produced very different outcomes in some historic local races: Namely, there might have been no Harold Washington as Chicago mayor or Carol Moseley Braun as U.S. senator. In the 1983 Democratic primary for mayor, no candidate won a majority. Washington got 36 percent of votes; Jane Byrne, 34; and Richard M. Daley, 30. Under ranked choice, Daley would have been eliminated first, and in the racially polarized Chicago of that era, it’s reasonable to assume that most of his white voters would have ranked Byrne second, giving her the victory. Similarly, in the 1992 Democratic primary for Senate, Moseley Braun won with 38 percent of the vote against two white candidates. (Doubek counters that ranked-choice voting may have created a higher turnout of historically disenfranchised voters, resulting in the same victors.)

That’s all conjecture. In Illinois, ranked choice has received little support from either of the two major parties. “We prefer runoff elections between the candidates receiving the top two vote totals,” says Steve Boulton, chairman of the Chicago Republican Party. “We see a mandate from a majority of the voters as a critical part of the legitimacy of our democratic system. [With ranked choice] voters are forced to rank candidates that they do not prefer at all, and even vehemently oppose.”

Of course, politicians could always ask the voters how they feel about it. Certainly the ones in Evanston, where 82 percent approved the referendum, let their stance be known.