In ousting incumbent mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago voters appear to be sending a message about their unwillingness to tolerate spiking levels of crime. Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, who currently holds a comfortable lead in the vote count, ran a campaign that prioritized backing the police, not defunding them. In breaking for Vallas, Chicago voters are following the example set by New Yorkers, whose pick of Eric Adams as mayor in 2021 sent a message about public safety.
In another important way, though, Windy City elections have set an example that Gotham’s should now follow. Chicago’s nonpartisan mayoral election system contrasts sharply with New York’s closed primaries, which have become one of the nation’s premier examples of voter suppression.
Here’s the simplest way to understand Chicago’s system: everyone gets a vote, and a meaningful one. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, voters registered as Independents or Republicans get to vote in both rounds of the mayoral election: a first round, which has winnowed a field of nine down to Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, followed by a runoff in April. Illinois doesn’t disclose voter registrations, but in its 2022 Senate race, it recorded 1,080,175 votes for the Democrat from Cook County (which contains Chicago), 341,447 votes for the Republican, and 20,300 for other candidates.
By contrast, the Big Apple’s nearly 1 million Independents and Republicans face a closed primary system. Independents are shut out of the June primary vote. Republicans get to help choose a sacrificial lamb for a November final election, in which their candidate will be swamped in a Democratic city. As of November 2022, New York City has 3,497,605 registered Democrats, 525,751 registered Republicans, and 1,032,332 registered voters with no affiliation.
Introduced in New York for primary and special elections in 2021, the ranked-choice voting system was, in theory, intended to provide a chance for voters to back lesser-known candidates but still see their votes count by being transferred to their second or third choices in subsequent rounds. But the closed primary (New York is the only city to combine ranked-choice voting with a closed system) makes a mockery of this goal.
To make matters worse, voters who might choose to switch their party affiliation—from Republican to Democrat, or from unaffiliated to either party—must do so months in advance of the primary election, before it’s even clear who all the candidates might be. This contrasts with open-primary states such as Ohio, where one can wait until primary election day (or even before then, with early voting) to choose which party’s ballot to use.
Chicago’s system by no means ensures victory for the early-round leader. The anti-crime, teachers’ union foil Vallas could very well lose in April’s runoff, as progressives who supported incumbent Lori Lightfoot or Illinois representative Chuy Garcia may flock to Johnson’s banner. This effectively allows voters to transfer to second or third choices, as in New York’s ranked-choice system.
It’s true that, in New York, an effort led by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2003 to push for nonpartisan city elections failed in referendum. Critics charged, among other things, that it would harm minority candidates. But since then, the city has adopted its new ranked-choice voting system—evidence that change is not out of the question. New York could look not only to Chicago but also to heavily Democratic Boston, which uses a Chicago-style system and has just elected Michelle Wu as mayor. She is the first Asian American and first woman to hold that office.
It’s quite likely that, were Chicago elections to be run by New York rules, Paul Vallas would not be in line to be the city’s next mayor.
Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty Images