Editor’s note: Ann Arbor city councilmember Tony Derezinski has already stated publicly that he’ll be seeking re-election to his Ward 2 seat in 2012. It was Ward 2 that offered the closest race in the fall of 2011 – a contest won by Jane Lumm over Stephen Rapundalo. Neighboring Ward 1 offered the least chance of a surprising outcome in 2011, featuring just one choice on its ballot – incumbent Democrat Sabra Briere. Briere was also unopposed in the August Democratic primary.
Out of curiosity, The Chronicle asked intern Hayley Byrnes to take a look at the names of people voters wrote by hand on their ballots.
Of the 1,206 Ward 1 voters who dragged themselves to their polling stations on a rainy Tuesday last November, 57 filled in the bubble next to the blank space for write-in candidates.
None of the people whose names were written on any of those 57 ballots could have won the election. Some were not the names of actual people who live in Ward 1, or even actual people at all.
But even among those actual Ward 1 residents whose names were put forward by voters, none of them had filed officially for a write-in candidacy. They were therefore not legal opponents in the election. Those 57 bubbles, however, reflected the votes of 57 Ward 1 voters.
Writing in the name of a person who has not registered as a write-in candidate – on a ballot that offers only one candidate – could reasonably be seen as an expression of dissatisfaction.
So The Chronicle wanted to discover: What form did voters’ dissatisfaction take?
Ward 1 Compared to Other Wards
How did the 57 write-ins (4.73%) for Ward 1 compare to other wards?
In Ward 3, 1.29% of voters wrote in a candidate. In Ward 4, that figure was 1.11%. Ward 5 had 0.81% write-ins, while Ward 2 had 0.17%. So Ward 1 had more than three times as many write-ins as any other ward.
To consider those numbers in the context of each ward’s contest, the lowest percentage of write-ins (by far) came from Ward 2, where Jane Lumm won one of the closest races, garnering 60% of the vote. The Ward 2 race was expected to be close, so it’s not surprising that only six voters ward-wide chose to “waste” their votes.
A slightly closer race than Ward 2 turned out to be Ward 4, where Marcia Higgins won with 59% of the vote – but it was not necessarily expected to be that close. That could explain a greater willingness of a Ward 4 voter to write in a candidate than in Ward 2.
But beyond numbers and percentages, available online on the Washtenaw County clerk’s website, no record is kept of the text of the write-ins themselves, other than the physical ballot. Ballots are sealed, and the number of handwritten candidate names are tallied as “write-ins” – even if no candidate registered as a write-in candidate.
Ballots as Public Documents
According to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), citizens “are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees.”
Whether that broad sentiment of “full and complete information” applies to voted ballots, which are entitled to strict secrecy, is not a part of the explicit language of the FOIA. But in May 2010, Michigan’s then-attorney general Mike Cox concluded that ballots are subject to the FOIA.
In attorney-general opinion #7247, Cox writes that voted ballots do indeed “constitute ‘public records’ for the purposes of the FOIA.” The opinion continues by explaining that because ballots are virtually untraceable to an individual after they have been tabulated, making them available to the public does not violate ballot secrecy.
While the public has the right to see voted ballots, the timeframe for that access is more restrictive than for an ordinary FOIA request. In the same opinion, Cox concluded that the ballots could be released 30 days after certification by the relevant board of canvassers.
For the Nov. 8, 2011 city of Ann Arbor election, the county board of canvassers certified the results on Nov. 16, opening the earliest window for access on Dec. 16. After that window opened, The Chronicle arranged with the city to inspect ballots. In the interest of efficiency, we targeted Precincts 4 and 8 in Ward 1, because together they supplied almost half of the write-in ballots (24 of 57).
While Precinct 9 offered another 16 write-ins, the Clague Middle School polling station for Precinct 9 was the same polling station for a precinct in a different ward – Ward 2, Precinct 6. The voting machine does not separate the ballots by ward, so on balance we expected to be more efficient by opting for precincts that wouldn’t require sorting by ward.
Names of Write-Ins
The 300 Ward 1 ballots we inspected were held in two blue-and-red bags – each with an unbroken seal on the handles. After breaking the seals, city clerk Jacqueline Beaudry remained present throughout the inspection, thus complying with another restriction that a city official be present at all times during ballot inspection.
After 30 minutes we’d confirmed all 24 write-in ballots from precincts 4 and 8. Here’s a sampling of the names that voters filled in on their ballots:
Wards are represented on the city council by two councilmembers, one of whom stands for election each year. Briere’s wardmate, Sandi Smith, has not announced publicly any plans for seeking re-election to her Ward 1 city council seat in 2012.
But of the names written in on last November’s Ward 1 city council ballots, Cthulhu is the least likely to challenge for her seat – he’ll apparently be otherwise occupied running for president: Chthulhu for President in 2012 Facebook page.
[.pdf of full set of 24 write-in ballots for city council in Ward 1, precincts 4 and 8, from the Nov. 8, 2011 election.]
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