City delays drafting referendum to codify nonpartisan elections practice


Daily file photo by Evan Robinson-Johnson

Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) at a City Council meeting. Fleming said aldermen should wait until after the budget to consider a referendum on nonpartisan elections.

Samantha Handler, City Editor

Aldermen at an Administration and Public Works meeting on Monday delayed a decision to vote on a referendum that would formally allow the city to hold its established practice of nonpartisan elections.

City staff told the Rules Committee earlier in October that they could not find any records of a referendum that implemented nonpartisan elections in Evanston. The law department added that a referendum is necessary to switch to nonpartisan elections despite the fact that they are already current practice in Evanston.

City Council must pass a resolution by the end of December to put a referendum on the ballot for the March 17 election. Ald. Tom Suffredin (6th) said he wants more discussion on the issue before they decide to move forward. Aldermen voted to postpone the discussion until the Dec. 9 meeting.

“My issue is that while this is definitely establishing what our past practice has been,” Suffredin said at the meeting, “we haven’t had a discussion about whether or not this is the best practice.”

Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) said she agreed that there needs to be a discussion at the full council. She added that they needed to get through the budget process before dealing with the elections issue.

The Illinois Election Code says that municipalities like Evanston generally hold partisan elections and set 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.

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,” City Clerk Devon Reid said at the Oct. 7 Rules Committee meeting. “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.”

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.

Ald. Ann Rainey (8th), who has served on City Council consistently since 1997 and was first elected in the 1980s, said at the Rules Committee meeting that 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.”

If aldermen vote to move the item out of committee on Dec. 9, the full City Council will discuss the issue.

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