With the 2012 general elections well behind us, it’s time for politicians to put on their very serious faces and make very serious pronouncements like, “The voters have spoken.”
I prefer to make a funny face and ask: How is a judicial candidate like the city park system? Or for a question that sounds less like the set-up to a punch line: What’s the deal with downtown Ann Arbor and its connection to the art millage and the library bond proposal?
Of course, politicians are at least partly right when they say that the voters have spoken. But what did the voters actually say? It’s easy to make true statements about voter sentiment – if you stick to the text of the ballot.
For example, in the non-incumbent race for judge of the 22nd Circuit Court, more voters preferred to have Carol Kuhnke decide future Washtenaw County court cases than to have Jim Fink decide them. You can tell that just from the ballot and from the results. But it’s possible to make a stronger claim: More voters preferred the kind of person Kuhnke is – a candidate endorsed by the city of Ann Arbor Democratic Party. And to support that claim, we’d need to look at other results, like those from the presidential election.
Or by way of another example, the election results indicate that a majority of Ann Arbor voters said they do not want the city to levy an 0.1 mill tax to pay for art in public places. That’s all you can tell from the ballot question and the results. To make stronger claims – related, for example, to what (if anything) voters were trying to say about the existing Percent for Art program – you’d need to find some other way to explore the content of voters’ minds.
The same goes for the Ann Arbor District Library bond proposal and the parks maintenance and capital improvements millage renewal. “Do not tax us to make the bond payments for a new downtown library building, but please continue to tax us to pay for city park needs.” That’s all voters said. They didn’t say anything about their favorite books, or which city park is the best. (By the way, it’s West Park, located in Ward 5, which is indisputably the highest-numbered ward in the city.)
Yet we’d like to divine something more from the results than just the results.
This column, which is heavy on impressionistic conclusions based on maps, and light on rigorous statistical analysis, begins with mapped illustrations of some basics. For example, mostly Democrats live in the eastern portion of Washtenaw County. And in Ann Arbor, Wards 2 and 4 are the strongest city wards for Republicans – even though those wards also lean Democratic. That’s still true 20 years after Ann Arbor’s ward boundaries were drawn to achieve that effect.
The column concludes by illustrating a possible geographic connection between the failed public art millage and the failed downtown library bond proposal – namely, downtown Ann Arbor.
Ann Arbor City Ward Boundaries
The ward boundaries in the city of Ann Arbor underwent their last substantial revision in the early 1990s. The goal of the redistricting was to establish three heavily Democratic wards (1, 3 and 5), leaving two Republican-leaning wards (2 and 4). Comparing the ward boundaries in Map 1 and the results of the presidential race in Map 2, the ward-wise distribution of Democrats and Republicans has remained fairly stable. Except in the northwest precincts of Ward 4 – where the Ward 5 Democratic strength bleeds down into Ward 4 – the ward boundaries are reflected clearly in the presidential results.
Judges, Dems, Parks
Judicial races are non-partisan. But in the non-incumbent race between Carol Kuhnke and Jim Fink, the local Democratic Party endorsed Kuhnke. And Fink himself, during a candidate forum hosted by the Democratic Party, acknowledged that if it were a partisan legislative race, ”you would not even think about voting for me.” So it was not a secret that Kuhnke was “the Democrat” and Fink “the Republican” in the race. Fink’s pitch to Democrats as voters was that he would follow the law and as a judge set aside his personal views. And in fact, several high-profile Democrats supported his campaign.
In Map 3, the results within the city of Ann Arbor show that support for Kuhnke shows a vaguely similar pattern to the presidential results. But it was not by any means an exact mirroring of the pattern of support received by the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama. In fact, the geographic distribution of Kuhnke’s support within the city of Ann Arbor seems to resemble more closely support for the parks millage (Map 4) than it does support for Obama.
Countywide Judicial Race
Countywide, the race between Kuhnke and Fink (Map 6) also showed a roughly similar pattern to the presidential race (Map 5), but it was not by any stretch an exact mirroring.
So I think it’s fair to conclude that a substantial number of people voted for the kind of person that they perceived Kuhnke to be (a Democrat, with whatever associations that comes with) as contrasted with the kind of person they perceived Fink to be (a Republican, with whatever associations that comes with). But it’s also fair to conclude that many voters appealed to something other than the “party” in making their choice.
Art and the Library: Downtown Connection
I don’t think the geographic distribution of results in the presidential and judicial races is particularly surprising, even if they do make for pretty maps.
But the distribution of results within the city of Ann Arbor for the public art millage (Map 7) and the Ann Arbor District Library bond proposal (Map 8) reveals something interesting: One factor underlying voter sentiment on those two questions seems to be proximity to the downtown.
Both proposals drew their strongest support from areas near the geographic center of the city. Opposition was strongest in areas further away from the geographic center. For the library bond proposal, which would have funded construction of a new downtown library building, that’s not surprising. For the public art millage, it’s not as obvious that this should be the case.
One possible theory is that folks who live in or near downtown are just more “cosmopolitan” and “arty” and for that reason supported the millage. More plausible, I think, is the idea that greater support in the core areas really reflects less opposition – and that the opposition was based in part on the perception that the public art millage was all about only the downtown. That perception could be based on the fact that the two highest profile, most expensive, and most controversial pieces of public art produced by the city’s current Percent for Art program are located downtown: Herbert Dreiseitl’s fountain sculpture, and Ed Carpenter’s interior piece, both at the new Justice Center. [Carpenter's hanging sculpture has been commissioned, but not yet installed.]
Perhaps some of the votes against the public art millage might be seen as votes against a downtown-centric art program. The Ann Arbor public art commission has recently been working toward an approach that would be more geographically balanced – based on quadrants of the city. And a revision to the city’s public art ordinance that’s expected to be brought forward at the Nov. 19 city council meeting also has a geographic component. The proposed revision to the ordinance includes a requirement that councilmembers for the ward where a piece of art is proposed be notified of that proposal.
To the extent that the results on these two proposals reflect something about attitudes toward the downtown, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority should take notice. Part of the logic behind enacting a downtown development authority – with its ability to “capture” taxes of other jurisdictions – is to pay for investments in the downtown area that wouldn’t otherwise be made.
Those investments wouldn’t otherwise be made, because the downtown would likely lose every single time, if the use of those taxes were put through the regular budgeting process. That’s because voters in the periphery (who’ll vote like any voters at least partly in a self-interested way) outnumber those in the core. The enactment of a downtown development authority is a mechanism for enforcing the discipline of making infrastructure investments in the downtown, without subjecting them to the relatively volatile annual city budgeting process.
I think one of the minor lessons of the 2012 general election in Ann Arbor is that the case for investments in the downtown is not obvious to many voters, and will need to be made on an ongoing basis.
Links to Maps
Links to the dynamic maps built by The Chronicle on geocommons.com:
- 2012 Ann Arbor city parks millage
- 2012 Ann Arbor public art millage
- 2012 Ann Arbor District Library bond proposal for a new downtown library
- 2012 Washtenaw County non-incumbent 22nd Circuit Court judicial race
- 2012 Washtenaw County U.S. presidential race results
- 2012 Ann Arbor city non-incumbent 22nd Circuit Court judicial race
- 2012 Ann Arbor city U.S. presidential race results
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