Confused About Chicago’s Elected School Board Transition? Part 2

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The Chicago Board of Education will undergo a dramatic transformation over the next three years as it transitions from a mayoral-appointed board of seven members, to a hybrid board of 10 elected and 11 appointed members, to a fully elected 23-member board. It’s a big change that’s coming up fast – so the clock is ticking for the legislature to finalize some pretty critical details. The legislature returns for Veto Session[1] October 24 and will have the opportunity to address some of these questions.

This blog series will feature three installments. Read last week’s post to see a summary of the law, the implementation timeline, and the history of school governance in Chicago and other Illinois districts. Our last post will look closely at school board compensation across the country, which is really deeply intertwined with another question: what is the role of a school board member? (If you have thoughts on either the compensation question or the role-of-a-school-board-member one, pop over to take our poll and share your thoughts…)

Today, we will talk about some potential pitfalls of holding a General Election without a Primary – plus a possible solution!

The Lifecycle of an Election

Most Illinois school boards are elected in non-partisan Municipal Elections. In any election held outside of the traditional November election, significantly fewer voters cast ballots. Los Angeles’s school board election was decided by 8.7% turnout. That is a prime reason why we commend the legislature for sticking with the General Election cycle for Chicago’s school board.[2] Most school board races in Illinois[3] feature all the candidates running at large to fill some number of available seats. (Or if there is a two-year term and a four-year term on the ballot, there may be two different match-ups, but still with multiple candidates running.) This often lends itself to candidates joining forces and running as a slate, which isn’t officially partisan but often falls along party lines.

But in Chicago, each subdistrict will vote for one candidate. (To be clear, this is overwhelmingly positive—carving a district into subdistricts has been ordered as part of desegregation consent decrees to increase racial representation on school boards and will likely have the impact of a more representative board for CPS.) Normally, in such a circumstance, there is some process to whittle down the number of candidates before the General Election. (Like in a House or State Senate race, where there is a partisan Primary. Or in some municipal elections, where there is a nonpartisan Primary with a run-off vote if no candidate secures over 50% of the vote.)

Petition season[4]  is already underway for other offices that are up for election in November 2024; those candidates will file their petitions between November 27 and December 4 and have a Primary election March 19. School board candidates presumably will have a later filing date for their petitions – but we will have to wait to find out when. There is also nothing in the law about a Primary, or a run-off, or ranked choice voting when it comes to Chicago’s school board election.

Unintended Consequences

Let’s say Subdistrict X is full of a strong majority of voters who support a culturally-affirming curriculum and a small minority of voters who prefer to, say, ban high-quality, thought-provoking books (like Just Mercy – I’m looking at you, Yorkville [Yorkville School District Y115 board removes book from high school English course – Shaw Local] 😠!). If twelve candidates file petitions and eleven reflect the views of the district, they might split the vote such that the one bigot ends up with a plurality of the vote and weasels their way onto the board.

Let’s look at one notorious example from Illinois: the 2010 Lieutenant Governor Democratic Primary Election. This is the fiasco that led to lasting change; instead of voting for a Lt. Governor nominee in the Primary, now the nominee for Governor selects their own running mate. In the 2010 primary election, six candidates ran for Lt. Governor on the Democratic primary ballot: four were higher profile candidates than the others and the media focused a lot of their candidacies. But there was hardly any vetting of a relatively obscure candidate: Scott Lee Cohen. Pawnbroker and relative unknown Cohen spent a large sum of his own money sending direct mail about job fairs he had hosted and pulled off a win with 26% of the total vote – a slim plurality over the next leading candidate’s 23%. Certainly no one secured a majority of the voters’ support. Only then did the public and media start to vet Cohen, looking into his background and learning about a history of domestic violence, including holding a knife to an ex-girlfriend’s throat.

If there was a run-off, voters would have an opportunity to look at the top two candidates and decide which was better suited for the job. One of them would have earned a majority of voters’ support. Or if this was a race that would be considered on its own merit in the General Election, voters would have chosen between Cohen and Republican Lt. Governor candidate; instead, the Lt. Governor nominee would be added to the Governor nominee’s slate.

The Cohen example is not the only one; on down-ballot races, Illinois is no stranger to one candidate’s camp deliberately recruiting others into a crowded field with similar (or identical) names, ethnicity, or gender as a strategy to divide a legitimate opponent’s votes. And in this first school board election, without any malicious intent or political games, it is entirely possible that numerous candidates get on the ballot, voters divide their votes among several candidates who reflect the demographics and values of the subdistrict, and an outlier candidate who is not representative of the district wins the race with a plurality of the vote, far short of the majority.

Ranked-Choice Voting

With technological advancements in voting, ranked-choice voting has become less of an election judge’s nightmare and more of a realistic tool to empower voters. It is done in a growing number of cities for local elections, including Evanston, IL as one of the newest additions to the list. “Instant runoff voting,” “ranked choice voting,” “preferential voting” in Australia, and “alternative voting” in the UK are generally used interchangeably. There are different ways to approach it, but the goal is for one candidate to reach 50% +1 of the vote.

We like the idea of voters ranking candidates in their order of preference. If no candidate has 50% of the vote, the last choice candidate is eliminated and the #2 choice of the ballots who ranked that candidate #1 are added in next. Then the next-lowest vote-getter is eliminated with their voters next choice added in, repeated until one candidate has a 50% +1 majority. If there is a tie for last place, the tie breaker could be which candidate has the fewest #1 votes.

One downside is that this is more complex for the average voter than simply choosing one candidate from the list. Voters may never have heard of some candidate on a very long list. If a candidate just ranks their first choice and leaves the rest blank, it is important for that one vote to still count. It could also make sense to go with a “top five” or “top three” approach, where candidates choose their top choices only. After the first round of tallying, only the top five (or three) remain for the counting, with all others’ voters automatically reallocated to the voter’s top choice among those five (or three).

Cambridge, MA is the longest running experiment with ranked voting, where voters have adopted it for school boards and city council racers since 1941. Maine and Alaska use ranked choice voting in their Congressional races. Five states used it for the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. New York’s 2021 Mayoral Primaries employed ranked-choice voting, following a 2019 ballot initiative allowing voters to rank up to five candidates. Other places have used a ranked choice approach in local elections: Seattle, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Fe, Minneapolis, and dozens of other municipalities. Sarasota, FL adopted it in 2007, but never had technology to enact it until recently; now that technology is available, the state of FL has banned it statewide. North Carolina also had ranked-choice voting, but has since repealed it.

The Illinois legislature created a Ranked-Choice and Voting Systems Task Force to study various voting methodologies and issue a report by March 1, 2024. It appears that eight of twenty appointments have been made.


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[1] “Veto session” is a short window of time in the fall when the legislature reconvenes for the purpose of taking action on bills the Governor has vetoed, though they often take up other time-sensitive matters as well.

[2] Stand supported a bill years ago to move all school board elections to the General Election cycle. While we see this as good for transparency and community engagement, apparently change is hard. It never went anywhere despite bipartisan support.

[3] With the exception of nine other districts that divide into subdistricts, like the new CPS board; at least 17 that carve out some portion of seats for a specific county(ies); and one (North Chicago) that is transitioning away from its State-appointed oversight board.

[4] This is a labor-intensive process that I never fully appreciated until I volunteered help a candidate collect signatures. To appear on the ballot, candidates and their volunteers circulate petitions that are drafted precisely as required by law, with each page signed by the person who collected the signatures and then officially notarized. Often, lawyers who specialize in this get involved to make sure everything has been done precisely as required by law, including binding together the pages properly. The point is: this isn’t like a petition that an inexperienced candidate could throw together on a whim.

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