City to draft referendum for nonpartisan elections to codify years-long practice


Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

City Council members engage in discussion. At a Monday Rules Committee meeting, aldermen discovered the city never formally switched to nonpartisan elections.

Samantha Handler, City Editor

Evanston’s Rules Committee voted to have city staff draft a referendum that would formally allow the city to keep its current practice of holding nonpartisan elections.

In a memo to the committee, the city’s law department said after the City Clerk’s office, Evanston Public Library and the department searched public and media records, they could not find a referendum that implemented nonpartisan elections in Evanston. The department added that a referendum is necessary to switch to nonpartisan elections despite the fact that they are already current practice in Evanston.

The Illinois Election Code says that municipalities like Evanston generally hold partisan elections and sets partisan elections as “default mechanism” for electing public officials in Evanston, according to city documents. However, the Illinois Constitution of 1970 allows for municipalities to change the way they elect officers by referendum, which is also confirmed in a 1980 Illinois Supreme Court decision.

City Council must pass a resolution by Dec. 30 to put a referendum on the ballot for the March 17 election.

“This is to keep to the same as we’ve been doing,” Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) said at the meeting. “I would like to move forward with this and cross the T’s and dot the I’s and have it correctly on the books.”

The law department said it discovered during the last election after a complaint about filing deadlines, which differ for partisan and nonpartisan elections, that Evanston never passed a referendum or resolution.

City Clerk Devon Reid said he has not seen any record that showed Evanston running a partisan election, going back to the 1950s.

The League of Women Voters found records showing Evanston held nonpartisan elections in 1949, 1965 and 1970, and the Illinois State Board of Elections says the city ran an election as Independent — not considered nonpartisan — in 2001 but has run nonpartisan elections consistently since 2005.

“We’ve just done it wrong,” Reid said. “Somewhere down the line, folks dropped the partisan labels and instead of classifying themselves as independent, they ran as nonpartisan and it became a norm here and we never passed a referendum.”

Some of the aldermen questioned how they could have run in nonpartisan elections, which included filing with the state’s Board of Elections, if the elections were actually partisan.

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th), who has served on City Council consistently since 1997 and was first elected in the 1980s, said Evanston has never had a partisan election as long as she has been running.

“I believe I have every petition I have ever submitted,” Rainey said, “and every single one I have ever run in has been nonpartisan.”

Reid said if the referendum failed, candidates would run in a partisan election and could declare as Independents or as part of an “Evanston Caucus party” similar to the Village of Skokie’s election system, which has the Skokie Caucus Party.

He added that the only changes would be filing deadlines and that candidates would choose a party rather than running nonpartisan. He said his office would put out information if Evanston were to run a partisan election.

“Just because we’ve done it wrong for a while doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start doing it right,” Reid said.

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