Need a shot of optimism? Take a look at these grassroots efforts to boost democracy
Our representative governments aren’t very representative anymore.
In large part, that’s because of gerrymandering and the way in which our elections are run, but a few local movements in the area are bubbling up and beginning to provide opportunities to try some new approaches.
In Berwyn Township this summer, in response to a non-binding question, 82% of voters said they wanted the state to allow them to rank candidates for office rather than pick one person per office opening.
And in a binding vote this fall, Evanston residents will get to weigh in on whether they want ranked-choice voting for local elections. In Skokie, a grassroots people’s movement has taken hold. The Skokie Alliance for Electoral Reform just turned in 12,000 signatures, in a community of about 68,000, to get three questions on their November ballots that will ask voters whether they want nonpartisan elections, a mix of at-large and district representation, and staggered terms for village trustees.
For Marilyn Ferdinand, a 22-year Skokie resident, making her community’s local government more responsive and representative really crystallized when the mayor and trustees ignored scores of residents at a packed meeting who were opposed to a proposed Carvana tower. The volunteer alliance had begun its work in 2021, but she began helping collect signatures and talking to her friends and neighbors after the tower vote.
Skokie has a local political party that has dominated for decades. One-party dominance, trustees elected at large, and single-digit local election turnout manifested itself in representatives who don’t really have to listen to their constituents, Ferdinand said.
“I think it’s fueled a lot of anger,” she said, “not just among people who get angry for a living, but ordinary people who just want to live their lives. They want to know when they do have an issue, people will listen to them.”
Skokie’s Alliance had 70 volunteers working to collect far more signatures than were needed to secure ballot spots and steering committee members say their work will continue as they push for November victories.
In nearby Evanston, the path to reform also included a lot of conversations and canvassing, but the local council itself voted to put a binding ranked choice voting question on the fall ballot.
Larry Garfield, a 41-year Evanston native, had many of those conversations with residents. He’s on the FairVote Illinois board and leads its speakers bureau.
With ranked choice, voters prioritize the candidates on the ballot. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the candidate with the least amount of votes is dropped and the voters’ second choices are dispersed among those remaining. That process continues until a candidate has a majority. The system eliminates runoffs and, in some local communities like Evanston, it eliminates the possibility of a small electorate choosing a mayor with no need for a general election or a small group of voters determining the winners in a low-turnout primary, Garfield said.
According to national FairVote.org, a record 10 locales around the country will have ranked choice voting on their ballots this fall. And, Garfield noted, if it had been the norm in Illinois earlier this year, we would not have had 11 candidates for statewide or congressional office who won primaries with less than a majority of votes.
Ranking candidates also loosens the power of party bosses, improves the chances of independent or third-party candidates, and makes it harder to “primary” someone by outflanking them on the extreme left or right.
In Illinois, because of its urban Democratic dominance and rural Republican history, as well as gerrymandering, most elections are decided in the primary. “It’s a job for life until they leave,” Garfield said. “When they do, five or six people run, and then someone wins with less than 30 percent of the vote and they have that job for life.”
The efforts to remake representative government in local communities could very well spark wider movements, these local activists believe.
“People have finally awakened to the fact that you can’t just take for granted everything will go along as you’ve had it,” Ferdinand said.
“Most major reform efforts start local before they gain national momentum,” Garfield said. “Getting small beachheads and small wins starts an avalanche effect. The state legislature really needs to get on board and strengthen democracy so it’s more representative of the people.”
This article originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business. Read the column in full here.