Column: Time for Non-Partisan Elections

Decisions on representation for Ann Arbor city council should be made when turnout is highest – in November

At a recent forum for Democratic primary candidates for the Ann Arbor city council, Ward 5 incumbent Mike Anglin expressed a generally positive outlook about the direction the council and the city are headed. But Anglin did not have praise for the level of participation in primary elections: “Our turnout in a primary election is devastatingly low. It’s embarrassingly low. And our community cannot be proud of that at all.”

non-partisan elections, elephant, donkey, lame ducks

This graphic was poached from a column written for The Chronicle last year by former city attorney Bruce Laidlaw – advocating for non-partisan elections. Laidlaw’s argument was based in part on the idea that it reduces the potential for lame ducks. It might also encourage more competition and participation. (Image links to Laidlaw’s column.)

How bad is it? The August 2012 Democratic primary featured contested races in four of the city’s five wards – with voter turnout ranging from a high of 13.9% in Ward 5 to a low of 8.2% in Ward 1.

In Wards 1 and 4, the winner received less than 1,000 votes. That compared to a citywide turnout of 56.2% in the November 2012 mayor’s race.

What about the Republican primary? If you’re not familiar with Ann Arbor politics, that’s a punch line.

Only in Ward 5 did voters have a choice of city council candidates in November 2012 – Republican Stuart Berry or Democrat Chuck Warpehoski. And 62% of the ward’s voters turned out to choose Warpehoski – by a wide margin. In the other wards, the decision had already been made – in August, by fewer than 10% of registered voters in those wards. In Ward 3, no candidate stepped forward as an alternative to incumbent Democrat Christopher Taylor, in either the primary or the general election.

While Anglin recently lamented the lack of participation in the Democratic primary, I don’t think that exhorting residents to vote on Aug. 6 is likely to bump participation to anywhere near the level we might see in November. So the decisions about who represents Ann Arbor residents on the city council will likely again this year be made when less of the electorate will head to the polls – in August, not November.

But Ward 2 will be a definite exception. That’s because voters will choose between two formidable candidates in November: Democrat Kirk Westphal (unopposed in the primary) and incumbent Jane Lumm, who’s indicated she’ll again be campaigning as an independent. They might be joined by independent Conrad Brown, if he submits enough signatures by the August deadline.  Still, in Ward 2, there’s no question the choice will be made in November, not August.

In Wards 1, 3 and 4, other independent candidates affiliated with a University of Michigan student group calling itself the Mixed Use Party have taken out petitions. None have yet filed the required signatures. But to the extent they prove to be serious candidates, voters in those wards might also feel they were offered a legitimate choice in November.

But when three legitimate candidates take out petitions, why are we forcing a selection between just two of them – precisely at a time of year when few voters turn up at the polls to make that selection?

Take Ward 3 as an example. Julie Grand, current chair of the city’s park advisory commission, and incumbent Democrat Stephen Kunselman are solid choices. They’ll be offered to voters in August. Only one will advance to the November general election. And as voters get to know him, independent Sam DeVarti – if he files his nominating petitions – could also prove to be another solid choice in November.

If they’re all three credible candidates, I think a more rational approach to an August primary would be to use that initial election to winnow the field of all three (or more) candidates down to two. That way the important choice, between the two finalists, would come in November, when more voters participate. Or all the candidates could be offered to voters in November, with no primary election at all.

It’s fairly common now for a city council election to draw only two candidates, both Democrats, who compete in August. If there’s no other candidate in the race at all, it would be more rational to offer those same two candidates to voters in November, when many more voters participate.

That kind of rational approach to candidate choice would be possible if Ann Arbor city council elections were non-partisan.

But under the city charter, Ann Arbor city council elections are conducted on a partisan basis.

Last year around this time, former city attorney Bruce Laidlaw wrote two op-eds for The Chronicle, the first explaining the historical background for Ann Arbor’s partisan system, and the second making a case for changing the city charter to provide for non-partisan elections.

There seems to be at least some interest this year in moving the idea forward. One indication came in a response to a recent Ward 2 resident satisfaction survey. An open-ended question asked respondents to identify the one issue that councilmembers should focus on in the next six months. Among the question’s many responses was this one: “Implement a non-partisan election process for city council and mayor.”

A question about non-partisan elections also was posed this week to Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje, who spoke at a Rotary Club lunch.

At the June 12 Ann Arbor Rotary Club meeting – held at the Michigan Union – Steve Dobson asked Hieftje for his thoughts on non-partisan elections. Dobson, who served as treasurer of councilmember Jane Lumm’s 2011 campaign, noted that Ann Arbor is one of only three cities in the state that hold partisan city council elections. [The other two cities are Ypsilanti and Ionia.]

Most Michigan cities either originally adopted a non-partisan system or have chosen to convert, Dobson said. He asked Hieftje why non-partisan elections haven’t gotten any traction in Ann Arbor, and he wondered what Hieftje personally felt is the case for and against that approach.

Hieftje’s response:

A few [cities] have switched from partisan to non-partisan, but most of that was put into their charters. It was in Ann Arbor’s charter from the very beginning, and it is an interesting issue and one that doesn’t get discussed a whole lot.

I can give you one side that I heard at a dinner party a few weeks ago. Of course, these were mostly Democrats and one of them had to say, ‘Well, they never worried about that for the hundred years before the mid-1990s when it was totally governed by Republicans.’ But it’s an interesting issue.

It would require a change of the charter, and a vote of the people. That would have to get on the ballot and that could require close to 10,000 signatures – or it’s something the city council could put on the ballot. I don’t know that that’ll happen. I’m not sure it would pass in the city, what the electorate would have to say about that. So those are only guesses. It’s certainly a conversation that can continue.

I would not mind at all running for office in a non-partisan environment. I think the other side of the argument that you asked me to talk about is some people really respect those labels. If they’re not following issues closely, they can tell something about that candidate from their party label – although sometimes you wonder that the party label doesn’t work anymore. So it’s hard to tell. It’s an issue with some different sides and a robust conversation perhaps could be had.

In resuscitating the issue this year, I’m mindful that there’s only about a two-month window of opportunity for the city council to act to place a ballot question before voters in November. By late August, a council decision will need to be made on that.

As other issues compete for the time and attention of councilmembers, it’s important to give them a nudge – if you think we’d benefit from a chance to decide for ourselves to switch to non-partisan elections. Contact information for city councilmembers is on the city’s website.

Chronicle publisher Mary Morgan contributed to this column. The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor city council. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’ve already elected to support us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too! 


  1. By Margaret Leary
    June 13, 2013 at 9:40 am | permalink

    Thank you Dave for raising one of the most important local issues. The partisan selection made during low-turnout primaries has the effect of enabling a really small number of people to “threaten” sitting council members with loss of their council seat if the council member votes “wrong” on an issue. Examples of this abound–I think back ten years or so when, after a long process of public hearings, Planning Commission proposed an ordinance change to enable “accessory dwelling units,”[basically, a small apartment within a house, or over a garage]for people other than relatives of the homeowner–a limitation imposed by Ann Arbor ordinance. Many similar cities have these,and the idea was endorsed here by senior citizen and affordable housing advocates. Then a few people got scared of “student invasions” and “loss of parking” and those few people talked council into not amending the ordinance.

    Another change that might improve the quality of council’s decisions, but would also require a charter change, is to eliminate wards and have city wide elections. That would improve decision-making at the council level by reducing the power of a few people to threaten a council member over a single issue.

  2. By Brad Cook
    June 13, 2013 at 10:08 am | permalink

    Is the mayor’s comment about “a few cities switching to non-partisan” actually factual? I ask because I just read a Chronicle article from last year [link] that stated:

    “In 1908, the Michigan legislature gave cities the right to conduct non-partisan elections. Since then all but three Michigan cities have chosen to elect their local officials in a non-partisan way. The three holdouts for a partisan process are Ionia, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.”

    Only three cities in the entire state? That’s way below even the national average of 25-30% cities going partisan. It does make one wonder.

  3. June 13, 2013 at 11:20 am | permalink

    Margaret Leary’s comment is interesting in that it focuses on the ability of an established council to hold a majority in the face of opposition and challenge. Actually, cities that were electing on an at-large system are now going to ward-based systems (I believe that is true for Detroit). It would be interesting to hear a political scientist weigh in on the basis for that decision.

    I lived in a city (Oceanside, California) that had a non-partisan, at-large system. The result of that system was that only the wealthy and well-connected were able to win. I know of only one Democrat who was elected to that council all the time I lived there.

    If we assume that our goal is to have a more democratic, more responsive government, then the ward system is the best for that in its very recognition that people and conditions vary across the city, and all deserve to be represented.

    Ward representatives are also better suited to attend to the small service concerns of citizens. This has been a tradition in our city, and I hope it will not change.

  4. June 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm | permalink

    “…I think a more rational approach to an August primary would be to use that initial election to winnow the field of all three (or more) candidates down to two.”

    If, as is often the case, only one or two candidates run in an August nonpartisan primary, it would merely repeat the August race in November. If more than two candidates run in August, it would limit the choices available in November. The example I would cite is Jane Lumm’s race two years ago. In August, two Democrats ran with the novice, somewhat unknown challenger doing surprisingly well. With the incumbent’s vulnerbility revealed, Lumm jumped in and won in November.

    Another example would be the newly formed Mixed Use Party. If these candidates were required to run in the August primary, they would likely come in third against Democratic Party candidates. Thus, independent or Republican candidates likely would be eliminated earlier. August elections have low turn outs and are unlikely to provide an opening for new candidates to prevail.

    Separate from the issue of eliminating candidates in the low turn out election in August, is the issue of participation drop off at the non-partisan portion of the November ballot. It is typical to see a significant percent of ballots cast not have any votes for non-partisan elections, such as judicial races.

    It seems to me that having non-partisan Council elections would cause elimination of newcomers in the low turn out August election and reduced participation in November Council elections. Do either of those things solve the problem you wish address?

  5. By Steve Bean
    June 13, 2013 at 12:31 pm | permalink

    Jack, I think your’e assuming that council contests would be similarly lacking interest as judicial ones. Is there a basis for that assumption other than generalization? My guess is that there isn’t—that there’s much more interest (and still would be in a non-partisan system) in council contests. On top of that I think Dave makes a reasonable case why interest would be even higher with more choices in November (assuming that that scenario came about).

    I do agree with your points about an August runoff. Instant runoff voting in November would be a better option, allowing full choice, efficient use of election resources, and reduction/elimination of the so-called spoiler effect.

  6. June 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm | permalink

    Re: [4]

    It’s important not to gloss over this part: “Or all the candidates could be offered to voters in November, with no primary election at all.”

    As far as this “If, as is often the case, only one or two candidates run in an August nonpartisan primary, it would merely repeat the August race in November.” No repetition would be necessary. You wouldn’t hold a primary unless more than two candidates filed.

    As you point out, Jack, under our current system, an independent candidate does not need to file for candidacy until after the partisan primary is held. Abstracting away from the specific case of Ward 2 in 2011, I think that’s not a generally a valuable feature that we need to preserve in our local elections. For a city council, I think it makes more sense to say invite everyone to participate in the same process, with the same deadlines for filing and the same dates for elections.

  7. June 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm | permalink

    On a meta-conversational note, I’ve noticed in copying and pasting, there’s apparently a brand new “value-added feature” to the website that causes automatic addition of a little blurb “See more at …” It’s not our intent that this should be inserted. I’ve given appropriate direction to eliminate that “feature” because it does not enhance anyone’s Internet experience.

  8. By John Floyd
    June 13, 2013 at 3:27 pm | permalink

    I’m not sure of the relevance of the statement,

    ‘Well, they never worried about that for the hundred years before the mid-1990s when it was totally governed by Republicans.’

    and I am disquieted about what it says our political culture:

    First of all, Ann Arbor hasn’t existed for even two hundred years, so the statement starts off as hyperbole. Hyperbole can have its rhetorical uses, but setting public policy is not one of them.

    Second, the idea that “So-and-so did it, so it’s OK for me to do it” is not a line of reasoning I accept from my children. It is embarrassing to see it used by adults in positions of authority. Ann Arbor’s dominant political ethos remains trapped in a middle school lunch room.

    Third, this isn’t a Republican-Democrat issue – there aren’t enough self-identified Republicans in town to shake a stick at. This is mostly an issue between different factions of local self-identified Democrats. The “They” in,”They never worried about that”, refers to DEMOCRATS who are skeptical of the now-dominant faction of the local Democratic Party. What Republicans did almost 20 years ago is not merely irrelevant to today – it isn’t even on topic.

    Fourth, it is disappointing for the Chief Magistrate of our town to be unwilling to answer a straight-forward question about why Ann Arbor is one of only three towns IN THE STATE to have partisan primaries for local elections. It’s a simple question. Isn’t there a SINGLE substantive reason for this anomaly?

  9. By John Floyd
    June 13, 2013 at 3:32 pm | permalink

    Now that I’ve posted, I see I mis-read the quote about the length of time that Ann Arbor was “totally governed by the Republicans”. I mis-read “hundred” for “hundreds”. My mistake. I retract my point #1, and apologize for accusing anyone of hyperbole.

  10. June 13, 2013 at 3:49 pm | permalink

    Re: (6). I did not mean to gloss over the alternative that all candidates might be offered in the November election. I was responding to one of your possible methods in an attempt to illustrate how difficult it is to foresee the potential problems of changing the current system.

    Having all candidates appear on the fall ballot with some kind of run off election (should no one muster a majority) is also problematic. Imagine a ballot like we had in 2012 where there are national, state, local, judicial races, school or library, state initiatives, and local initiatives. Having all of the possible Council candidates appear on an already too-long ballot will not present best means of selecting a Mayor and Council. Lots of voters will participate, but the cluttered ballot may overwhelm voters.

    Conversely, we could elect all council members and the mayor in an odd year election (perhaps following Ms. Leary’s suggestion from comment #1 that they be elected at large). This is what Kalamazoo does. In 2011, only 14.8% of Kalamazoo voters turned out to elect council, their mayor and decide a couple of ballot issues. That 14.8% is better than our primary turn out, but nothing to write home about.

    We have a good turn out for the fall elections. The problem is not that the decision is made in the Democratic Primary. The problem is that the Republicans have failed to offer a reasonable alternative in those fall elections.

    I recognize that in a general, inchoate way, non-partisan elections sound appealing. I just do not see that as the cure to poor voter turn out. You may get either a cluttered ballot or an odd year, low turn out.

  11. By Steve Bean
    June 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm | permalink

    @10: A client of mine prints most of the ballots for the State of New York elections. Our ballots are nowhere near cluttered by comparison to what NYC voters see. I think we could handle voting for our one mayor and one council rep per election year from a list of several names.

  12. June 13, 2013 at 4:43 pm | permalink

    It is relatively easy to do thought experiments on how the system would work. As Dave Askins notes, the instance from last year when Jane Lumm was elected was an unusual circumstance. Most of the time, potential candidates could be mustered by a May (or even June) filing date. These could include the incumbent, perhaps a Democratic challenger, a Republican, and a third party (or Independent) candidate. These would all compete in the August primary, presumably with a full discussion of issues.

    The primary would not be completely “non-partisan” since candidates could seek endorsement by parties. This is the common pattern in most cities of the state. (Which would set us up for some intra-party squabbles.)

    The two winners of the primary (regardless of party) would then advance to the November ballot, to be chosen by voting in the non-partisan section. If only two candidates filed, there would not be a primary. The two would proceed directly to the November ballot.

    One advantage of this system would be that in many cases, there would not be a primary, yet there could still be a full discussion of the issues leading up to the November election.

    During the 2012 August primary, candidates were asked at a debate whether we would support a non-partisan election for council. My recollection is that Jack Eaton was the only one who said he wouldn’t.

  13. By Mark Koroi
    June 13, 2013 at 4:56 pm | permalink

    “Our turn out in a primary election is devastatingly low.” – Mike Anglin.

    The percentages of those casting ballots as reported above is misleading since it includes many, many persons, primarily ex-college students, who have moved away but did not cancel their respective voter registrations with the City Clerk.

    One example cited was a tenager who was 19 in 1976 when she registered and voted in that year’s election. She never voted again from her address but remains on the City Clerk’s roll of actively-registered voters and would be 55 years of age today. County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum has stated that there are many, many examples of such voters who should be purged from registration rolls but are not due to the prohibitive costs that would be involved in such an ivestigation.

    The downside to these obvoiusly inactive “active” registered voters is that it skews the petition signature rquirements to put an issue on a ballot referendum. It’s almost impossible to get a recall or other issue put on a referendum in Ann Arbor because of this.

  14. By Mark Koroi
    June 13, 2013 at 5:27 pm | permalink

    “……Sam DeVarti……….could also prove to be another solid choice in November..”

    The DeVarti name has been in electoral politics for a long time in Ann Arbor.

    Dominick DeVarti, a pizza entrepreneur, ran for mayor in Ann Arbor as a Republican in 1957, but lost. He sold one of his outlets to Tom Monaghan and was an inspiration for the name “Domino’s Pizza”.

    Dave DeVarti was a Democratic City Council member who, after leaving office, managed the campaign of Steven Kunselman when he scored his upset Democratic primary victory over Leigh Greden in August of 2009.

  15. By Leslie Morris
    June 14, 2013 at 4:01 pm | permalink

    For those who would like a city council chosen in November rather than August (in at least some wards)I would like to point out that this would not require a controversial charter vote to switch to non-partisan elections. Those candidates who think their chances are better in November than in August can file to run in November as Independents, as Jane Lumm has done. This would not mean that party identification would be banned in campaign literature; it just would not appear for that candidate on the ballot.

    I share the concern that a complete switch to non-partisan elections would not increase participation, but in fact would decrease it. In even-year elections, when the turnout is high and the ballot long and complicated, there is a huge fall-off between votes on the partisan section and votes on the non-partisan section.

  16. By Tom Whitaker
    June 14, 2013 at 4:28 pm | permalink

    “The downside to these obvoiusly inactive “active” registered voters is that it skews the petition signature rquirements to put an issue on a ballot referendum.”

    Last I checked, which was fairly recently, the number of signatures required to get something on the ballot–including a recall–was based on the number of people who actually voted in the last election, not the registration roles. Depending on whether it was local or statewide issue, the number was based on those who voted in the last gubernatorial or mayoral election.

    I’m sure if I’m wrong, I will be quickly corrected.

  17. June 14, 2013 at 10:56 pm | permalink

    Re: petition signature requirements: percentage of actual voters in last election versus percentage of registered voters

    For recall, it’s based on the percentage of actual voters:

    168.955 Recall petition; number of signatures; certification.
    Sec. 955. The petitions shall be signed by registered and qualified electors equal to not less than 25% of the number of votes cast for candidates for the office of governor at the last preceding general election in the electoral district of the officer sought to be recalled.

    For various and sundry issues specified in the Home Rule Cities act – forcing a referendum on issuance of bonds, for example – it’s based on a percentage of registered voters: [link]

  18. June 15, 2013 at 8:36 am | permalink

    Sorry, Dave, this idea is a loser. It is a Republican fantasy. If the races were nonpartisan, then Republicans would be free to hide their real politics under the label of “nonpartisan”.

    This Would Be Bad.

  19. By cosmonıcan
    June 15, 2013 at 10:32 am | permalink

    re #18: So, it is better that it is that they just outright lie and claim to be Democrats instead, as they do now?

  20. June 15, 2013 at 2:49 pm | permalink

    The Dems are a “big tent” party. I know that several recently-defeated Dem Councilmembers who had really unfortunate views on local issues (fill in the blanks here) were/are nonetheless active Dems at the local and state scenes.

    I forgot to mention a couple of things. Just a couple of years ago, the Republicans in Ypsilanti City got a charter amendment on the ballot for nonpartisan local elections. The amendment was defeated.

    Also, at least 20 years ago, I remember encountering Ingrid Sheldon when she was campaigning for City Council. I noticed that she did not have “Republican” on her lit. She confessed that she didn’t think she could win if she identified herself as a Republican. I said she should be proud of her party. She went on to win as a Republican. Those where the days when the Republicans weren’t actively evil, just misguided.

  21. By Kerry D.
    June 15, 2013 at 8:04 pm | permalink

    @David Cahill:

    Ingrid Sheldon was a better mayor than John Hieftje.

    @Jack Eaton:

    The Mixed Use Party is more popular than you may think.
    I will be backing their efforts this November. They have made good points and deserve to be heard and considered.

    Jaclyn Vresics is planning a run in the First Ward and has pulled petitions. She is articulate.

    I have attended some of their meetings and feel they are a credible alternative.

    Vote Mixed-Use this fall!

  22. By Rod Johnson
    June 15, 2013 at 10:02 pm | permalink

    It’s hard on the face of it to take a part called “the Mixed-Use Party” seriously. What does that name mean and why did they choose it?

  23. By Mark Koroi
    June 15, 2013 at 11:11 pm | permalink

    @Rod Johnson:

    That is a very good question.

    The Mixed-Use Party has established a website to inform the public about itself:

    The name “Mixed-Use Party” is derived from one of the key platforms of the party – a zoning plan which includes regulation of offensive characteristics such as noise, shade, and pollution but eliminating such regulation on non-offensive characterstics, such as commercial-use or living arrangements.

    I would encourage you to attend one of their monthly meetings, as Kerry D apparently has.

  24. By Rod Johnson
    June 16, 2013 at 9:15 am | permalink

    Thank you, Mark.

  25. By Rod Johnson
    June 16, 2013 at 9:41 am | permalink

    That website is singularly unsatisfying. A bare-bones platform with some ideas about zoning, but nothing about the vision or philosophy behind it, and nothing about the people involved. Googling helps some, but not much. I look forward to learning more.

  26. June 17, 2013 at 12:07 pm | permalink

    @ 21. Kerry D., I hope that you did not understand me as being critical of the Mixed Use Party. I was trying to convey the likelihood that a student oriented party would not do well in an August, non-partisan primary because most students would be out of town in early August. They stand a better chance running in November if they are running against traditional party candidates.

    While I do not agree with the Mixed Use Party on most issues they have addressed, I am still happy to see students organize to run for local office. With something like 40,000 students in a city with a total population of 114,000, students should have a voice at the table. Organizing their own party allows students to identify the issues they want the City to address. If they elect or even come close to electing any candidates, it will have an impact on city policy decisions.

    I would note that I supported Hatim Elhady, a student candidate in the 2009 4th Ward race. I was impressed that he was trying to find common ground between neighborhood residents and students. I also endorsed Tim Hull in the 2011 2nd Ward primary. I believe Mr. Hull had graduated just prior to running. I thought he, too, could bring a student perspective to Council. I encourage students to become involved in local politics to raise issues of concern to them that Council is not addressing.

  27. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 17, 2013 at 12:58 pm | permalink

    Therein lies the problem:

    “re #18: So, it is better that it is that they just outright lie and claim to be Democrats instead, as they do now?”

  28. By Mark Koroi
    June 17, 2013 at 1:24 pm | permalink

    @Jack Eaton:

    I agree, and encourage more students to run for office.

    Jeff Irwin and Yousef Rabhi ran as studets and have done a decent job on the Board of Commissioners.

    I used to work in the same law office as Eric Jackson who was elected to Ypsi City Council as a student in the 1970s and served two terms. He went on to become publisher of the Panama News.

    I remember your support for Hatim Elhady in 2009.