Election Reform

Our Current Priorities: Empowering Voters

In 2021 and beyond, Reform for Illinois is committed to working with state and local governments to bring down barriers that keep people from exercising their right to vote, and to increasing the impact of their votes. Below are some policies that can serve as important steps. Click on any of the topics below to read more.

Implement ranked choice voting  

Recently approved by voters in New York City, ranked choice voting (RCV) (also known as instant runoff voting) is gaining momentum around the country as a way to empower citizens to vote for their first choice, not the one conventional wisdom says is most “electable.” This is important because it can enable more independent candidates to compete and thus loosen the stranglehold of machine politics, special interests, and big donors on our elections.  How does ranked choice voting work?

Simply put, in a RCV election, voters are asked to rank multiple candidates in order of preference. Once all the votes are in, the candidate who received the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the votes for that candidate are reallocated to the voters’ second choices. This process of eliminating candidates and reallocating votes continues until one candidate has a majority of votes.

 

Empower a broader range of candidates by eliminating the spoiler effect. In plurality voting (what we have now in Chicago and Illinois), candidates can divide voters of a similar ideology and end up handing the election to a candidate those voters dislike. But with RCV, a variety of candidates can compete against one another without fear of pitting like-minded voters against each other and “spoiling” the election. In this way, RCV can incentivize a broader range of candidates to enter the race, increasing voters’ options and allowing them to select the candidate they most prefer. RCV also reduces the pressure for voters to support the “lesser of two evils”: a candidate they may not like, but who is viewed as having the money or party support needed to defeat a candidate they like even less. With RCV, voters have more freedom to cast their ballot for a contender who is viewed as a long shot. This empowers voters and gives more candidates a better chance at winning. As one enthusiastic Maine voter put it after voting in her state’s Republican primary, “ranked choice voting gives me an opportunity to at least express my opinion. And even if my candidate doesn’t win, they’ve got the input.”

Decrease divisive campaigning and increase voter satisfaction. Studies have found that by incentivizing candidates to appeal to supporters of other candidates, RCV appears to have a civilizing effect on campaign discourse. Voters in RCV jurisdictions reported lower rates of negative campaigning and greater satisfaction with elections under the RCV system.

In municipal elections, boost overall turnout and save administrative costs by eliminating runoffs. Many Illinois municipalities, including Chicago, hold a runoff election between the top two vote-getters in the first election. Voters need to cast a ballot twice in the span of just a couple months in order to make their voice heard. RCV would prevent the need for runoff elections, meaning that citizens would only need to vote once. One study showed that in nonpartisan municipal elections, eliminating the runoff by using RCV/instant runoff voting could mitigate drop-off effects in runoff turnout, significantly boosting overall participation in the election. It would also save municipalities the considerable cost of holding a runoff election.

 

Authorize local election authorities to use ballot drop boxes  

When the General Assembly temporarily permitted the use of drop boxes for the November 2020 election, election authorities and voters responded positively. Forty-six of the state’s 108 election authorities made drop boxes available to voters for the November election, and almost 80% of the state’s population (more than 10 million people) live in election jurisdictions that offered them. They were heavily used, with some jurisdictions reporting ⅔ or more of mail-in ballots returned to drop boxes.

They are popular elsewhere in the country as well. Eight states, including many with a robust culture of voting by mail, have permanent legislation allowing the use of drop boxes. 

Following the successful use of drop boxes in the November 2020 elections, Reform for Illinois has worked with the Promote the Vote coalition to advocate for their permanent authorization. You can read our statement to the General Assembly here.

 

Establish a permanent list of voters receiving mail ballots  

More than 2 million Illinoisans applied for and cast a ballot by mail this November, and election authorities had to process an application for each one. Currently, voters are required to send in an application to receive a mail ballot for each election individually, placing an unnecessary burden on voters who wish to vote by mail for every election. The system also burdens local election authorities, who must process a new set of mail ballot applications before every election.

While not everyone will want to vote by mail, Illinois can make it as easy as possible for those who wish to do so and save money at the same time by reducing administrative costs. 

A permanent list of voters receiving mail ballots is compatible with secure elections as well. Voters can choose to take themselves off the list at any time, and voters who do not return their mailed ballots in multiple consecutive elections will automatically be removed.

 

Implement a ballot tracking tool for all Illinois voters  

Voters can have more trust in the vote by mail process if they are able to track their ballot to confirm that it has been received and easily address any issues, such as signature verification. Local election authorities in Illinois currently offer a patchwork of tracking options for ballots, but ballot tracking is not universally available and has been inconsistent for some voters. 

Developing and offering ballot tracking at the state level will relieve local election jurisdictions of the burden of creating their own tools and will ensure that it is made available to all voters in the state.  

Colorado recently implemented a statewide ballot tracking program so that all voters can receive an email notification when their ballot is sent to them, when their returned ballot is received, and when it is verified and accepted. Systems like this improve election security and give voters confidence that their vote has been properly counted. 

 

Create electronic voting tools for voters with disabilities  

Every voter has an equal right to be able to cast a secret ballot, but the state must act to ensure that right is secured in practice for all people. Reform for Illinois has worked with Equip for Equality and the Illinois Council for the Blind to draft bill language that would facilitate the development of electronic ballot tools for vote by mail ballots that would enable people with disabilities to safely and securely fill out and cast a secret ballot. States such as West Virginia have already passed legislation enabling the use of an online means of casting a ballot for those who need it.

We support guaranteeing an online method of requesting a ballot that is accessible for all, allowing voters with disabilities to receive a ballot by email and then mark and return it online rather than needing to print, sign, and mail it, and mandating that all election jurisdictions in Illinois make electronic and accessible ballots available to voters with disabilities.  

 

Ensure that voting modernization efforts advance equity

Voting reform should benefit everyone, but all too often changes in election administration negatively impact historically disenfranchised communities. When that is a risk, legislation should provide for community involvement and include clear, equity-focused criteria for implementing and evaluating voting changes. This will help avoid disenfranchisement and ensure equal access throughout Illinois’ diverse voter population. 

For example, the process of consolidating polling places should contain legislative safeguards. These could include requiring community involvement at key stages, opportunities for public comment, multilingual voter education efforts, and mandated consideration of factors like language access and proximity to public transportation and low income communities. Jurisdictions like Sacramento have developed community-inclusive processes for siting polling places and educating the public about them.

 

Our Past Work  

Reform for Illinois has worked for years to bridge the divide between voters and election authorities to develop policy that makes voting easy and fosters trust in our electoral system. In 2017, we surveyed election officials about the challenges they face in maintaining the integrity and efficiency of Illinois elections and the reforms they would like to see implemented. The survey results led us to create a report on Election Administration Best Practices and resulted in the enactment of our Voter Equipment Modernization Program, which Governor Rauner signed into law in July 2018.

We then turned to community advocates for their perspective on barriers to voting and on how new reforms being implemented around the country might be adapted to Illinois’ unique and diverse voter population. Based on their input, we drafted legislation for policies that would improve voters’ access to the ballot box.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for providing robust options to voters to cast their ballots so that they have access to safe, efficient, and trustworthy methods of participating in their democracy. In the spring of 2020, we provided input to the General Assembly as it worked on emergency legislation to support voters and our election systems during the pandemic through policies such as expanding early voting and vote by mail.

“Access, Technology, and Turnout: Enacting Voting Reform in Illinois”

As part of this project, we hosted an election reform workshop for public officials, election authorities, community advocates, and experts in election administration and innovation to discuss best practices and emerging technologies in vote-by-mail and other voting options. Participants in our “Access, Technology, and Turnout” event included Cook County Clerk Karen Yarborough and representatives from the Chicago Board of Elections, Chicago Votes, the Spanish Community Center, Democracy Works, the National Vote at Home Institute, the Center for Technology and Civic Life, and more.

  • View presentations from the “Access, Technology, and Turnout” workshop here.
  • View handouts and participant bios here.

Reform for Illinois is committed to exploring new options for ensuring the broadest possible access to voting in our state, particularly as the COVID-19 virus threatens to disrupt traditional voting methods.

 

Visit our Legislative Initiatives page to read more about our election reform and other recent legislation.

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