If at first they don’t succeed, try again in April

By Heather McGraw

In the event of a non-majority win on Feb. 22, a runoff election could mean a second chance for mayoral and aldermen candidates.

As of press time, the latest poll conducted by Chicago Retail Merchants Association shows Rahm Emanuel with 58 percent of the vote. Because polls represent a small percentage of the population and numbers fluctuate, there is a chance Emanuel will win less than the majority of votes in the election. If this happens, Emanuel will face the candidate with the next highest number of votes in a runoff election held in April.

Any candidate up for election, from aldermen to mayor, has the ability to avoid a runoff election by winning a majority of votes cast.

“The Chicago format has all of the candidates running in the primary election,” said Ken Menzel, legal counsel for the Illinois State Board of Elections. “If one of the candidates gets a majority of the vote, [which is 50 percent of ballots cast plus one vote], [then] the candidate is elected.”

Only two candidates can participate in a runoff election. According to Dick Simpson, head of the Political Science Department at University of Illinois at Chicago and former alderman, a runoff election very often favors the second place candidate.

If there is a tie for second place, Menzel said there is no definitive process to choose who will appear on the ballot against the front-runner.

“It’s a random selection, basically a coin toss,” he said.

According to Menzel, this is a very different system, and Chicago is one of few cities in the state that follows the process.

Chicago held runoff elections for aldermanic positions in the past, but for citywide positions such as mayor, a subsequent election is not usually needed.

“This is the first open mayoral contest in 64 years, the first time the ballot has no sitting mayor among the candidates,” said Jim Allen, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections Commissioners.

According to Allen, there have always been one or two runoff elections at the aldermanic level, but if the mayoral race comes to a runoff, the Chicago Board of Elections Commissioners is prepared to manage it.

Runoff elections were put in place to supplement the partisan primaries Chicago used to hold before changing city elections to a nonpartisan election.

In 1995, Republicans took control of the Illinois General Assembly and the governor’s office for the first time in 25 years. They used their power to push through the idea of holding nonpartisan mayoral elections—a proposal that had been thought of before but lay dead for nearly a decade with no chance of being passed.

Larry Frang, executive director of the Illinois Municipal League, said there is no good way to compare Chicago’s election process to that of other cities and municipalities in the state.

“Going back to 1941, there was an act called the Revised Cities and Villages Act of 1941 that applied uniformly to all the cities in the state,” Frang said. “But there was a separate article that dealt with Chicago.”

Although it brings the list of candidates down to two, Allen said the downside to a nonpartisan ticket process is it causes an increase in the number of signatures a person needs to run.

Previously, the number of signatures needed depended on the total number of voters registered for the candidate’s party. After a slight reduction by the IGA, the number currently stands at 12,500. According to Allen, this is a significant hurdle to candidates.

A runoff election changes the whole nature of the race and makes it more competitive, Simpson said, and because Chicago no longer has partisan primaries, a runoff election is the best option.

“This is the first post-Daley-era election, and we’re really charting the future of the city,” he said.