Ann Arbor’s Ward 1: Cthulhu Council?

Ballots from 2011 show range of unregistered write-in candidates

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.

Ballot Mr. No Fuller

This ballot likely reflects a sentiment against the Fuller Road Station, which would include a train station, bus terminal and – in its first phase – a large parking structure. At last report, the facility would be a joint city of Ann Arbor-University of Michigan project, located on city-owned land that's designated as part of the park system.

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?

Percentage of Write-in Ballots for Nov. 8, 2011

Bar Chart A. Percentage of write-in ballots for Nov. 8, 2011 Ann Arbor city council elections by ward.

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.”

Ward 1 Write in ballots by precinct

Bar Chart B: Ward 1 Write in ballots by precinct

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:

Ballot Anyone Else

Anyone Else.

Ballot John Hilton

John Hilton. Likely a reference to the editor of the Ann Arbor Observer. The printed monthly magazine's articles are also available on

Ballot Mr. No Fuller

Mr. No Fuller. This ballot likely reflects sentiment against the Fuller Road Station, which would include a train station, bus terminal and – in its first phase – a large parking structure. The facility has been proposed as a joint city of Ann Arbor-University of Michigan project, located on city-owned land that's designated as part of the park system.

Ballot Mary Elton

Mary Elton. Likely the car enthusiast, spouse of Bob Elton.

Ballot Robert Elton

Robert Elton. Likely the local car historian who is one of the founders of the Rolling Sculpture Car Show. Image links to Ann Arbor District Library video of a history of Chrysler by Elton.

Ballot Pat Clancy

Pat Clancy. Possibly the co-operator of Lil Dog Rescue.

Ballot Grant Weber 2

Grant J. Weber. Possibly a former student at the Ross Business School at the University of Michigan.

Ballot Wickboldt

Wickboldt. Likely Richard Wickboldt, who ran unsuccessfully for the Ward 1 Democratic nomination for city council in 2007, a race won by Sabra Briere.

Ballot Pinckleman

Sarah Pinckleman. Likely an English instructor at Washtenaw Community College.

Ballot Cthulhu

Cthulhu. A fictional character from the short story “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft, published in 1928. The creature has a following for the 2012 presidential election.

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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  1. By TJ
    February 3, 2012 at 11:25 am | permalink

    There’s a Pat Clancy who works at Food Gatherers. I know him, and Sarah Pinkelman for that matter!

  2. February 3, 2012 at 11:30 am | permalink

    Don’t want to fall behind Cthulhu–I’d better get that Facebook group going!

  3. By Bob Elton
    February 3, 2012 at 11:54 am | permalink

    I was surprised to see my own name there.

    I wrote in my wife, Mary Elton, in part because uncontested elections offend me.

    I chose to write Mary in because i think she’s got the intelligence and wisdom to be a great council person. Too bad I can’t talk her into running.

    Bob Elton

  4. By Stewart Nelson
    February 3, 2012 at 12:26 pm | permalink

    Sabra is one the most diligent public officials I have ever met. She consistently fights for feed back from her constituents so that she can vote in a manner that accurately reflects the desires of the residents in Ward 1 and for what is best for the City. Anyone that does not understand this is not watching what is going on in Ann Arbor. It is also why no one will run against her as they would be wasting their time. Ward 1 is well served by Sabra and Sandi.

  5. By Patricia Lesko
    February 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm | permalink


    I live in Ward 1 and, obviously, watch what Smith and Briere do and how they vote.

    Sandi Smith has served the Mayor and the DDA very well, not Ward 1 residents. Marcia Higgins has twice suggested that Sandi recognize that her place on the DDA presents a conflict of interest, and twice Hieftje has risen to Sandi’s defense. Sandi raised most of her money outside of Ward 1, and even outside of Ann Arbor. We didn’t put her on Council; her friends in Ypsilanti did. Maybe she should run for Council there.

    Sabra’s votes in favor of Fuller Road (in defiance of the Sierra Club), the underground parking garage, and the Recycle Ann Arbor taxpayer bail-out, similarly do not strike me as serving the residents of our Ward, either.

    Both Sandi and Sabra will face contested elections next time around. As Bob Elton wisely pointed out, that’s the way it should be.

  6. By Steve Bean
    February 3, 2012 at 4:57 pm | permalink

    I didn’t know that the Sierra Club lived in Ward 1. :-/

    Wonder if Sandi will be the mayoral candidate for the Dems. John told me this would be his last term.

  7. By A2person
    February 3, 2012 at 7:54 pm | permalink

    Sabra Briere is the single-most responsive public servant I’ve ever encountered. I have been amazed at her quick and decisive attention to issues that really matter to Ann Arbor residents. She has fixed several problems in the past several years in a matter of days, when other council members, the mayor, administrators, etc etc, only shuffled me around and gave non-answers. I only wish every city council person could be as hard-working, diligent, and responsive as Sabra.

  8. By liberalNIMBY
    February 3, 2012 at 11:08 pm | permalink

    I respect Sandi and Sabra’s service as well. While I don’t agree with 100% of their votes, I feel they have no axes to grind and aren’t prone to some of the nauseating politicking we’ve witnessed from a couple of their colleagues in attempting to placate one faction or another. (Two words: City Place.)

    And I think it’s a fantastic idea to explore public financing for local elections, but not to criticize people for working within the established system.

    While I’m at it, let’s continue hoping that the local Sierra Club endorsement continues to be the kiss of death for any candidate or issue. It’s a shame that their positions are so far out of line with an otherwise excellent state and national organization.

  9. February 4, 2012 at 9:38 am | permalink

    When I was a student at UM I used to work elections for the City Clerk. My most memorable election was the time we had HRP and preferential voting. The machines couldn’t handle this and we had to count the ballots by hand. I happened to be working the Michigan Union, which is where many of the Rainbow People voted, including Pun Plamondon. There were quite a few write-ins on the paper ballots, many of them revolutionary figures like Leon Trotsky.

    Plamondon was an interesting character. Among other things, he was the subject of a Supreme Court decision that ruled not even the President acting in the interest of national security can authorize warrentless wiretaps, a decision that has apparently been forgotten over the years.

  10. February 4, 2012 at 10:34 am | permalink

    “Pun Plamondon of the Rainbow People’s Party speaks to Ann Arbor City Council about the reform of marijuana laws in Ann Arbor.” Ann Arbor News photo, 1973:


  11. February 4, 2012 at 2:51 pm | permalink

    Re: “John told me this would be his last term.”

    Steve, could you provide any additional context for that? For example, I’m guessing it was NOT anything like the following:

    JH: Who do you like for the Super Bowl?
    SB: Going with the Giants, this year, even though I have a soft spot for Brady, what with his UM connection.
    JH: When the Pats pressure him, I have no faith that Manning will have the discipline to check down to find an open receiver. Wanna place a wager on the game? Say, $100?
    SB: Dude, you know my current thoughts on money.
    JH: Oh, right. So, anyway, I don’t know if I mentioned this to you, but this is my last term as mayor.

  12. By Steve Bean
    February 4, 2012 at 7:28 pm | permalink

    @11: It was the night before I pulled petitions in 2010 when I told him I was doing so. Of course, he may have changed his mind.

  13. By Jack Eaton
    February 5, 2012 at 11:36 am | permalink

    @ #8 (LIBERALNIMBY) “…let’s continue hoping that the local Sierra Club endorsement continues to be the kiss of death for any candidate or issue.”

    Perhaps you did not notice that the local Sierra Club endorsed Jane Lumm in her recent victory over an incumbent. I cannot recall whether Council Members Anglin and Kunselman received the Sierra Club endorsement, but they were clearly receptive to the positions of the Club and won with similarly large margins.

    There were many factors that contributed to my defeat in the 2010 4th Ward Council race, but the Sierra Club endorsement was not one of them.

    Council Member Lumm won, not because of an endorsement or lack of an endorsement. Instead, she won because she was well known and well regarded and the mischaracterizations of her positions and record did not work.

  14. By john floyd
    February 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm | permalink

    It is a paradox to me that even as I find more and more positions with which Sabra and I are not in agreement, my respect for her seems to increase.

    Campaign laws do permit out-of-district donations, yet I suspect most of us are more comfortable when most contributions are from in the district. No reason to be concerned because one’s best friend lives accross town, or Aunt Betty in Manistee supports her relation; unease if contributions are mainly from people outside the ward – or even the city- who are looking to influence council via a ward in which they do not live.

    In some circles, “Ax to grind” translates as “Platform on which they are running”. My suspicion is that all council members have “Axes to grind” in that sense – some simply seem reluctant to have them known before elections, as if their particular “platform/tree-felling-tool” would not pass muster with voters. Not announcing your platform also allows you – or your supporters – to call your opponents names, such as “Ax grinder”.

    Really, how comfortable would you be with someone whose only reason for running was to be in power? The main job of a representative is to represent, but I’m not sure how comfortable I would be with someone who claimed to have little/no idea what the issues were, and little/no idea what to do about them. I know I am uncomfortable witrh people whose agendas are quite real, but hidden from the electorate.

  15. By Marvin Face
    February 8, 2012 at 9:05 pm | permalink

    I don’t know whether you are intoxicated or I am, John Floyd, but I have no idea what you just said.

  16. By John Floyd
    February 9, 2012 at 7:11 pm | permalink

    Mr. Face,

    I can be verbose. Sorry.

    1) I like Sabra Briere, even when we disagree.

    2) Its probably better to get most of your campaign contriburtons from within the district you want to represent.

    3) Everybody runs on some kind of platform. The people who pretend not to have a platform, who will not tell you what the intend to do, are scarier than those will tell you what there agenda is. Calling someone’s platform “an ax to grind” seems to be a pejorative that distracts people from asking what the name-caller’s candidate intends to do in office.

    4) Someone who actually had no agenda – who had no idea of what the issues are, or ideas of what to do about them – is probably not ready to run for office.

    Now pass the bottle.