Column: Let’s Put Life into City Elections

Ann Arbor voters deserve choice on non-partisan elections

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. 

This column argues for a nonpartisan process for electing councilmembers and the mayor of Ann Arbor – in part because it reduces the potential for lame ducks. It might also encourage more competition and participation.

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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  1. June 17, 2012 at 1:07 pm | permalink

    This was an interesting and informative article–thanks!

    But, I’m sorry but I am sick to my stomach seeing how low the turnout is. I mean, I knew it was low but seeing it like that makes my belly hurt. Is there any evidence that non-partisan elections would turn out more voters? I see that the hot 2009 race (which I remember well, since I live in Ward 3 and my friend won!) *still* only got 12% of folks out to vote.

    Either way, let’s go people! I’ve voted even when I didn’t like the candidates (hasn’t happened in awhile, since moving here) and just wrote myself in. I hope it made Great-Grandma proud.

  2. By Kerry D.
    June 17, 2012 at 8:13 pm | permalink

    Nice theory Bruce, but the plan behind the partisan primary elections was to disenfranchise college students who are not typically found in Ann Arbor in early August; this was the same logic behind the ward system.

    Back in the 1970s the leftist Human Rights Party held City Council seats and were a real political force in our city – as you already are aware. The establishment found ways to prevent these “undesirables” from attaining elected office in Tree Town.

    Back in the days when Al Wheeler and Mayor Stephenson vied for office, the candididates reflected the full political spectrum.

    Instant Runoff Voting was implemented for awhile back then but was stopped.

    Some third parties, like the Green Party, have employed a city caucus nominating process locally to place candidates on the local election ballot, but have not done so since 2003. The Libertarian Party had a mayoral candidate receive 15% of the vote in 2008 againnst John Hieftje.

    The current state of the election system in this city is to perpetuate the ruling elite and exclude student participation.

  3. June 17, 2012 at 9:14 pm | permalink

    I see two related issues here: are the races partisan or nonpartisan and when is the major contest held. With our current partisan election system, the primary major contest is usually the August primary. How do the other options stack up:

    advantages: High turnout, student participation*, warm weather allows strong canvassing
    disadvantages: hard to get attention during contentious presidential and gubernatorial races.

    advantages: limited competition from other races, student participation
    disadvantages: weather could suppress vote and impede canvass.

    advantages: limited competition from other races, student participation, weather better than February
    disadvantages: weather still not great for canvass operations

    advantages: limited competition from other races, weather favorable for canvass
    disadvantages: many people out of town, no student participation

    (* I recognize that, depending on your perspective, student participation could be an advantage or disadvantage)

    As a current candidate for city council, I have a bias toward an election that encourages door-to-door voter contact. I’ve found this to be the best way to hear what is truly on voters’ minds, and I cringe at the thought of doing it in January.

    As for partisan or nonpartisan, as I watch how the State Supreme Court races are highly (if not overtly) partisan, I’m not sure that this is a key variable for Ann Arbor races. Even if I were running in a non-partisan race, I would be highlighting my Democratic endorsements and progressive values.

  4. By Bob Elton
    June 18, 2012 at 8:26 am | permalink

    Bruce Laidlaw is absolutely correct in his observations.

    But I think he makes an error in imputing effects to causes. In other words, I suspect that the relative lack of interest in local electrions goes far beyond the issue of partisionship or calendar.

    I think that Ann Arbor has become so affluent that local issues, local taxes, mean little or nothing to the vast majority of residents. Ann Arbor has little serious crime, no serious problems delivering city services, we manage to keep the poor people isolated in Ypsilanti, and the homeless out of sight in the DeLonis center.

    Why bother voting?

    That said, my wife and I vote in every election, going so far as to write in candidates in uncontested elections. We do this because we think it’s important.

    But I don’t kid myself about my neighbors.

    I don’t think council will voluntarily change the system that got them in office, and keeps them there as long as they choose to serve, for the most part.

    I think that the only way to change either the calendar or the partisionship of elections is through citizen initiative. I’ve worked, even led, a few of these, (park acquisition millage among others), and it can be done. But it takes a lot of commitment, time, and effort.

    I’m not sure that the outcome of elections would then be all that different.


  5. June 18, 2012 at 9:51 am | permalink

    Sadly, I think there is a lot of truth to Bob’s observations.

    But there is also some amount of discontent with the status quo. So count me in to campaign for nonpartisan elections (or, better yet, instant runoff voting).

  6. By Joan Lowenstein
    June 18, 2012 at 10:52 am | permalink

    If you want Tea Party Republicans to wage stealth campaigns by calling themselves non-partisan, then go ahead and have non-partisan elections. The real solution is to eliminate odd-year elections and increase the mayor and council terms to 4 years.

  7. June 18, 2012 at 11:31 am | permalink

    #3: I believe that the state now limits elections to February, May, August and November, not April.

    In my opinion, Hatim Elhady gave the “student participation” idea a good test by running as an independent in the November election with a strong student campaign. It didn’t work (skip down to second half of my post [link]) I suspect that undergrads, especially those who are only here for their college experience, will always vote mostly in Presidential elections.

    #6: That would be an excellent way to absolutely lock in the status quo. Even our state reps and Congressmen have to answer to the voters every two years.

  8. By James Jefferson
    June 18, 2012 at 12:08 pm | permalink

    Four year terms? No, thanks. I have been in Ann Arbor since 1983 and it seems that voter apathy is at an all time low. I would rather see a charter amendment stating that for bond issues and/or tax increases a minimum amount of votes need to be received for it to be binding. That way we can avoid such results as the recent passing of the school technology bond, where less than 5 percent of the voters saddled the rest of us with yet another tax increase.

  9. By James Jefferson
    June 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm | permalink

    P. S. And quickly, before we get stuck with a new downtown library building, a county wide transit tax, a new train station, etc. etc.

  10. June 18, 2012 at 12:47 pm | permalink

    A nice try, Bruce. But the partisan identification of a candidate is often the most important piece of information about that candidate. It tells the voter how the candidate is likely to stand on a wide variety of issues.

    I oppose the kind of hiding of the truth that nonpartisan elections would encourage.

  11. By liberalNIMBY
    June 18, 2012 at 1:38 pm | permalink

    I would be in favor of considering eliminating odd-year elections, and almost ANY other system (IRV, Approval Voting, etc.) that held elections on Election Day instead of our current idiocy. People can barely get up to speed on state and federal issues once a year, and you’re asking them to take on an interest in local issues… at an odd election time? Readers of this fine publication are fine with this, but the majority of folks in this town are clearly not.

    With regard to non-partisan elections, it appears there’s a lot of data out there that would indicate how cities fare when they’re non-partisan. I think it’s at least worth investigating how voters turn out in other college towns relative to us, and whether deceptive people are any more likely to get elected via “stealth” campaigns in non-partisan systems. I know we’re special, but it seems that the 99% of other communities in Michigan might’ve been on to something when they made the decision not to politicize local government elections. (Is there really a Democrat or Republican way to fill a pothole?)

    Plus, there is little to no candidate vetting by the Democrat or Republican “establishment” in this area. As noted in the previous column, this was the one of the original reasons for establishing a partisan system.

  12. By Steve Bean
    June 18, 2012 at 2:48 pm | permalink

    @6: “If you want Tea Party Republicans to wage stealth campaigns by calling themselves non-partisan, then go ahead and have non-partisan elections.”

    You mean as opposed to Republicans becoming Democrats?

    @10: “But the partisan identification of a candidate is often the most important piece ofinformation about that candidate. It tells the voter how the candidate is likely to stand on a wide variety of issues.”

    Name ten.

  13. June 18, 2012 at 4:00 pm | permalink

    I don’t see any downside to a ballot question allowing voters to opt for a non-partisan system and considerable upside.

    The upside to a ballot question is that many of points in this thread will have a chance to be put through a more demanding crucible of community conversation. Without an actual question on the ballot, the arguments are fairly academic.

    And however the vote on the ballot question comes out, we will have either actively affirmed for the first time in a half century that we like our local elections the way they are, or else we’ll have decided we still like them partisan-style. Then we can move on to the next thing. Ann Arbor’s equivalent of Bruce Laidlaw 50 years from now can then include the ballot question of 2012 in the written history of Ann Arbor elections and why they are partisan/non-partisan. (I’m planning to be dead by then.)

  14. By Mary White
    June 18, 2012 at 4:06 pm | permalink

    It seems to me that in the age of Citizens United a non-partisan system would make it even easier for the one with the most money to win. At least under the current system the voter knows if he or she is voting for a Republican or a Democrat.
    Also, I think that the partisan ballot is not the reason for the preponderance of Democratic candidates; it’s the facts that (1) Ann Arbor voters are still centrists of the old school, and (2) the Republicans have moved farther and farther right.

  15. June 18, 2012 at 6:05 pm | permalink

    Re: “… or else we’ll have decided we still like them partisan-style”

    That’s not what I meant to write. Something more like, ” … or else we’ll have decided we like them non-partisan style after all.”

  16. June 19, 2012 at 9:04 am | permalink

    We already have non-partisan elections. The candidates all call themselves Democrats regardless of which party they actually belong to.

  17. By Peter Zetlin
    June 19, 2012 at 10:07 am | permalink

    One bit of data that’s worth considering when counting the percentage of registered voters who vote is that the voter rolls are not particularly up to date. It’s difficult to purge them, and many people counted as registered voters no longer live here.

    As I remember, a recent check with the city clerk showed about 95,000 registered voters. Say the population of Ann Arbor is 114,000. That means that 83% are registered to vote. Subtracting the number of people who are not eligible, such as those under age, you get a even higher percentage of registered voters.

    What’s a number that accurately reflects registered voters? I surly don’t know, but it’s likely to be less than 95K.

  18. By KenK
    June 19, 2012 at 1:46 pm | permalink

    Wow. Ann Arbor’s political ruling class and their running dogs don’t want any democratizing reforms that would threaten their stranglehold on power. What a surprise.

  19. June 19, 2012 at 7:56 pm | permalink

    The 2010 census says there are about 98,000 people in Ann Arbor over the age of 18. Some percentage of those will be ineligible or not registered here. So 95,000 does seem like a bit of an overcount. Still, turnouts seem too low.

    “Running dogs” is a term I haven’t heard in a few years.

  20. By Richard Dawn
    June 19, 2012 at 11:08 pm | permalink

    Quick: Name the last Democrat v Republican “partisan” issue Council faced. I contend there really are very, very few. Our issues are: how much does downtown grow? Do we build a train station? Do we lay off public safety personnel? Not very partisan in a traditional political party way.

    I find it extremely ironic that in Ann Arbor, a community that takes such pride in its diversity, tolerance and inclusiveness, requires individuals, who seek to serve the community, to affix upon themselves a partisan label as a type of pre-condition to providing that service. As we well know, many citizens seeking to provide local service have simply accepted a currently more favorable label while begrudgingly suppressing their true party allegiance.

    We should abolish the locally meaningless party labels. Allow an open primary where the candidates would be evaluated on their local positions, not national affiliations and the top two vote getters would face each other in the general.