Editor’s note: Column author Bruce Laidlaw served the city of Ann Arbor as city attorney for 16 years, from 1975-1991. Starting with his service at chief assistant city attorney in 1969, he served the city for a total of 22 years. He defended the city in two elections that were contested in court, both involving the election of Al Wheeler as mayor in the mid-1970s.
For a detailed history of Ann Arbor’s partisan system of elections, see Laidlaw’s previous column: “Ann Arbor – A One-Party Town.”
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.
Here in Ann Arbor, we currently hold partisan primaries in August to determine which candidates for city council and mayor appear on the November ballot – with a party label printed next to their names. Nowadays that’s typically a D or an R, more often a D.
It’s time to ask Ann Arbor voters to decide if they’d like to continue to elect local officials using this partisan primary system. It’s even possible to eliminate local primaries altogether. The city council has the power to place a ballot question before voters this November – a question asking voters if they would like to amend the city charter to convert city elections to a non-partisan process. The council should exercise that power.
What would the advantage be of a non-partisan system?
Background: April Elections, Competition
After the city of Ann Arbor switched the timing of city elections from April to November, the impact of the partisan local election system has been particularly negative. That switch was made in 1992 – by asking voters to amend the city charter, which they agreed to do. Until then, from the time of Ann Arbor’s incorporation in 1851, city elections were held in April, after primaries that were held in February. Those early-year elections were confined to city issues and the elections of city officials like councilmembers and the mayor. For 130 years, there was healthy competition for elected offices in all the city wards.
In the years leading up to the 1992 charter amendment, it was standard for the April city election to include contested races for the council seat in each ward. In 1987, a Republican and a Democrat appeared on the April ballot in each of five wards, for a total of 10 candidates. In 1989, a total of 11 candidates contested the April election – because Ward 3 and Ward 4 ballots included a Republican, a Democrat and a Libertarian. That year, the only ward without a contested election was Ward 1. And some Ward 1 voters wrote in names like Donald Duck and Ann E. Arbor, likely to express their dissatisfaction with that uncontested state of affairs.
Voter turnout for the April city elections was comparatively healthy by today’s standards. Of the roughly 85,000 registered voters in 1989, 19% turned up at the April polls to vote in city council races. In 1987, turnout was about 22%.
The 1992 charter amendment effectively ended that healthy competition and participation.
The 1992 charter amendment moved the city elections to coincide with the dates of the elections for state office – with a primary in August, and a general election in November. Proponents of the change asserted that it would mean the outcome of the elections would be decided by a larger number of the registered voters.
After April Became November
But the result has been the opposite. For example, in November 2007 none of the five city council races offered voters a ballot choice of names, or of parties – because they were all Democrats. Except in Ward 2, citywide turnout that year ranged between 2-4% of registered voters. The Ward 2 race was made interesting because of a spirited write-in campaign, which elevated participation to a “whopping” 9.5%.
Participation in the August 2007 Democratic primary was also low. The three-way race in the Ward 1 Democratic primary led only about 5% of voters to the polls. The other two wards with contested Democratic primaries that year had 6-8% voter turnout. The remaining two wards didn’t have a primary. So candidates in those wards were unchallenged, either inside or outside their own party.
That scenario has become the norm. More often than not, there is no competition for city council seats. When more than one person vies for a council seat, the election deciding that contest is usually the August Democratic primary, when a turnout of 10% of the registered voters in any ward would be considered typical.
Mixing the city elections with the partisan state and federal elections eventually resulted in one-party rule by Democrats. No one has been elected to an Ann Arbor city office as a Republican since 2003. And in 2005, one of those Republicans, elected in 2003, switched party labels to become a Democrat. She likely knew she stood a better chance of being elected as a Democrat.
Arguments for Non-Partisan Elections
Based on presidential elections, though, Ann Arbor seems to be a clearly Democratic town – so what’s wrong with one-party Democratic rule? Doesn’t that simply reflect the prevailing politics of our town? It might. But I think even Democrats would agree that it’s better to have a greater number of Democrats deciding our local elections, in November, rather than the paltry number who typically show up to participate in August Democratic primaries. A three-way race in a highly controversial 2009 Ward 3 contest drew only 12% of registered voters.
In that 2009 Ward 3 Democratic primary, the winner received just 511 votes – only 6 more than the second place candidate, who was actually the incumbent. Having lost the primary, that meant the incumbent had to serve as a lame duck councilmember for three months. If there were no primary election, any sitting councilmember who lost an election would sit as a lame duck on the council for just a single council meeting. Such a primary-free process would be possible if local elections were non-partisan. Ann Arbor doesn’t appear to need primaries to “narrow down” the field, which is supposed to be their function.
The other way councilmembers can be lame ducks is to choose not to seek re-election. Even if they don’t announce it, that intention becomes evident if incumbents do not meet the deadline for filing petitions. It’s a mid-May deadline for the August primary. With the current partisan primary system, councilmembers not seeking re-election become lame ducks about half a year before their terms end. This year, two councilmembers are voluntarily lame ducks until November. If Ann Arbor eliminated its primary system, then the filing deadlines would mean that councilmembers would serve only about three and a half months as voluntary lame ducks.
An Argument for Choice
I have advised the current Ann Arbor mayor and city councilmembers of the simple changes that would be required to amend the city charter so that Ann Arbor would conduct elections like most of the rest of Michigan cities.
It could be done in two ways. The party language could be deleted from the primary election clause so that a primary would be held only if more than two people filed for an office. That is the way the Lansing charter reads. Perhaps a better way would be to eliminate the primary election clause and just determine the winner by who gets the most votes in November. That is the route that Traverse City follows.
It is understandable that councilmembers would not jump at the chance to eliminate the election system by which they were put in office. But they should give the voters a choice to do that. That would be a choice to adopt a new, non-partisan system, or to reaffirm the choice voters last made over a half-century ago, in 1956 when the city charter was first ratified.
By adopting a simple resolution at the council table, the city council has the power to put a charter amendment on November’s ballot, and to give voters that choice. The alternative to council action would be for citizens to embark on the laborious process of getting the signatures of 5% of Ann Arbor’s registered voters on a petition – over 4,000. That should not be necessary, when the city council itself could put the question on the ballot with a simple vote at the council table.
It is time for the Ann Arbor city council to give voters a chance to make a change that could put some life back in city elections.
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