Column: Ann Arbor Ward Shifts Should Wait

Voting rights are as American as apple-pie-shaped wedges

On the Ann Arbor city council’s agenda for Tuesday, July 5, is a proposal to redraw the boundaries for the city’s five wards. That’s a regular event that can take place every 10 years, after the data from the decennial U.S. census are released.

Ann Arbor redistricting

Yellow cross-hatched areas reflect proposed portions of the city that are now in Ward 1, but would become part of some other ward instead. (Image links to high resolution .pdf file of all affected areas.)

Of course, the city is not the only local unit of government faced with the task of evaluating election boundaries every 10 years. For Washtenaw County, the board of commissioner districts were redrawn after a series of public meetings held by the county’s reapportionment committee and covered by The Chronicle. That initiative resulted in a reduction of the number of county board seats from 11 to nine. ["County Board Loses Two Seats in Redistricting"]

Although it is not the city election commission’s assigned responsibility to handle city ward reapportionment, the commission met on Friday, June 10, 2011 and worked out recommended changes. The changes essentially pare down Ward 1, which over the last 10 years has grown in population relative to other wards.

By comparison to the new county districts, the proposed new ward boundaries for the city of Ann Arbor reflect fairly minor changes. For one thing, the number of wards has not changed – the city charter requires exactly five wards, and further stipulates that they must be roughly pie-shaped, with the slices of pie meeting near the center of the city. The charter also stipulates that the ward boundaries be changed as little as possible from the existing lines. I don’t have a problem with the proposed changes themselves.

However, the proposal before the city council on July 5 is that the ward boundaries should be effective after the Aug. 2 primary election, but before the general election on Nov. 8. Changing the boundaries between the primary and the general election is just bizarre.

Sticking with the same rules from the beginning of the election process to the end – that’s as American as apple-pie-shaped wedges.

Why Change the Boundaries at All?

The ward boundaries of the city are supposed to be maintained with roughly an equal number residents. The relevant provision of the Ann Arbor city charter reads:

Section 1.3 (3) Each of the five wards should be maintained with a population as nearly equal to the population of the other four wards, as is practically possible, on the basis of the last preceding federal decennial census.

The city election commission isn’t assigned the responsibility of managing city ward reapportionment. But the commission – consisting of the city clerk (Jackie Beaudry), the city attorney (Stephen Postema), and the head of public safety (Barnett Jones) – met on Friday, June 10, 2011 and worked out recommended changes to pare down Ward 1. Over the last 10 years, Ward 1 has grown in population relative to other wards. In the proposed reapportionment, a total of 1,821 city residents recorded in the 2010 census were reassigned from Ward 1 to other wards. Some other minor changes were proposed as well.

It was in the spirit of bringing all five wards as close as possible to the 22,787 people per ward that a perfect division of the city’s 113,934 residents would yield.

In terms of arithmetic, the proposal pretty well nails it:

          Assigned      Deviation   Deviation
          Population    Number      Percent

Ward 1    22,795          +8        +0.04
Ward 2    22,739         -48        -0.21
Ward 3    22,919        +132        +0.58
Ward 4    22,760         -27        -0.12
Ward 5    22,721         -66        -0.29

And the changes make good sense. Under the proposal, an odd bump-out from Ward 4 into Ward 3 was removed so that the boundary between those two wards is aligned to Packard Street for a long stretch. That’s consistent with the charter’s directive to make the borders align to “natural boundaries.” In this case, that natural boundary is a major street.

Another change that conforms to the same directive is to move the southern boundary of Ward 1 – thus the northern boundaries of Ward 3 and Ward 4 – to align with South University Avenue, instead of Madison Street. South University is a major street, while Madison is not.

There is room for discussion over some of the other changes. In fact, Ward 1 councilmember Sabra Briere has proposed a tweak involving the boundary between Ward 1 and Ward 5. But I don’t think there are any proposed changes that could be called grossly unfair or unjust.

The timing for the proposed changes, however, is pretty flaky.

Required Boundary Change Between Primary and General??

Why would anyone even think to change the city ward boundaries between the primary and general elections for city council? The apparent thinking on the part of the city attorney’s office is that unless this change is made before the general election, the city would be in violation of the state of Michigan’s Home Rule Cities Act 279 of 1908 [emphasis added]:

117.27a Apportionment of wards; definitions.

(4) In each such city subject to the provisions of this section the local legislative body, not later than December 1, 1967, shall apportion the wards of the city in accord with this section. In subsequent years, the local legislative body, prior to the next general municipal election occurring not earlier than 4 months following the date of the official release of the census figures of each United States decennial census, shall apportion the wards of the city in accord with this section.

The census figures were released this year for Michigan on March 21, 2011, so the general election on Nov. 8, 2011 meets the criteria set forth in the Home Rule Cities Act.

But the timing stipulated in the state statute did not necessitate that the boundaries be changed between the primary and the general election. The question for the city of Ann Arbor on March 21, when the census data became available, was this: Is there enough time to complete the reapportionment of wards to enact new boundaries before the filing deadline for the primary?

Bear in mind that the enactment of new boundaries is an ordinance change, and as such would require two readings before the city council, with approval at each reading. The filing deadline for candidates in the primary elections was May 10. In the interval between March 21 and May 10, the city council had three scheduled meetings. So I would contend that the window of opportunity was completely adequate for enacting ward boundaries before the primary election.

I base that contention in part on the already noted constraints on how wards can be drawn in the city of Ann Arbor. Those constraints  are fairly severe – ward boundaries are supposed to stay as close to the previous lines as possible and they have to maintain a roughly pie shape. So it’s not like a great deal of number crunching and sophisticated mathematical modeling of myriad alternatives and permutations is required.

However, the city of Ann Arbor has now missed the opportunity to satisfy the state statute by enacting the boundary changes before the primary election filing deadline. And wishing really hard that the changes had been enacted sooner won’t help much.

So why not meet the statutory requirement by just changing the boundaries of the wards now, before the primary elections take place?

Why Not Just Change the Boundaries Now?

One possibility – which is not being proposed by anyone – would be to meet the state statutory requirement by changing the boundaries now, before the primary elections take place, but after the filing deadline for candidates in the primaries. That would eliminate the objection to changing boundaries between the primary and the general elections.

But it would be absurd to suggest changing the ward boundaries for an election after the filing deadline for candidates has passed. Why? It’s because that could easily lead to a scenario where someone who lives in the old (current) Ward 1 might well have decided not to run for a seat on the city council because they did not think they could defeat the incumbent Sabra Briere. If that person were reassigned to the new (proposed) Ward 2, they might well have concluded that Stephen Rapundalo is vulnerable (given his problems with a self-described “misrepresentation” made at the council table during the last year), and decided to contest Rapundalo’s Ward 2 seat.

Further, candidates are required to collect signatures of voters who live in the ward they seek to represent. If the boundaries for the primaries change now, after the signatures have been collected, it’s possible that someone who signed a petition for a candidate in (old) Ward 3, for example, is reassigned to the new (proposed) Ward 4. The loss of that signature could result in a candidate falling short of the 100 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

But arguments against changing the boundaries for the primary elections, after the filing deadline for those elections, apply equally well against changing the boundaries between the primary and the general elections.

By way of another kind of specific example, a resident of the current (old) Ward 1, who is reassigned to the proposed (new) Ward 2, will not have any primary election in which to participate – that’s because no partisan candidate filed for the primary in Ward 1. That person would then be presented with a single choice in Ward 2 in November (assuming no independent candidate files by Aug. 15).

That scenario effectively disenfranchises the voter.

What Are Our Choices?

It would seem that we have a difficult choice: (1) violate a timing provision of Michigan’s Home Rule Cities Act, or (2) violate any number of basic principles of our democracy familiar to any schoolchild, not to mention various other issues of legal liability that are beyond even the wonky scope of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. [For readers who enjoy that sort of thing, here's a link to a .pdf file of a memo written to the Ann Arbor city council by local attorney Tom Wieder: Wieder memo on ward reapportionment].

I would suggest that the city’s choice is not that difficult. The Home Rule Cities Act simply sets a timeframe for the reapportionment work to be done. It does not stipulate when the reapportioned wards must be enacted and used in an election cycle.

I would suggest that the city council consider and enact the reapportionment sometime before Nov. 8, with the stipulation that the new boundaries are to be used for elections after Nov. 8, 2011.

Dave Askins is editor and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle. 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’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!

One Comment

  1. By Rod Johnson
    July 2, 2011 at 10:24 pm | permalink

    I agree; you’re obviously right.

    But can I digress a little bit? That map is fascinating, because it has block-by-block population figures. 5 people appear to live in the Arb. 4 people live in the Diag–I assume that’s the President’s household. 3 people live in the little triangle across from Zingermans. 2 people live in the nonexistent block which is actually Sculpture Plaza at Catherine and Fourth. I’m very curious what those stories are.