From the Daily: Extending term length favors democracy

Wednesday, November 2, 2016 - 5:46pm

Next week, Ann Arbor residents will vote on a controversial ballot proposal to extend the term of office for Ann Arbor mayor and City Council members from two years to four years. If approved, City Council elections would be held at the same time as general elections, increasing the potential for Ann Arbor to see increased voter turnout for City Council elections, candidates who will take their positions more seriously and council members who will be able to take on larger projects that will have lasting benefits for the city. For these reasons, The Michigan Daily endorses the ballot proposal to extend city officials’ term length to four years. However, we believe this ballot proposal doesn’t get at the fundamental problem that primaries are held in August, resulting in a very small group of voters going to the polls to decide who even has the opportunity to run. Though extending term length is a step toward a more democratic Ann Arbor, it is not an ultimate fix.

Proponents of the ballot proposal argue that extending the term length to four years will increase voter turnout. This is a much needed effort: Ann Arbor’s last odd-year election in 2015 garnered an unsurprisingly paltry 8.7 percent voter turnout, allowing a relatively small group of highly invested voters an outsized voice over the majority of city residents. However, voter turnout more than triples for even-year general elections that coincide with larger national and state-wide contests. Increasing the city officials' term length from two to four years would allow local elections to occur concurrently with larger ones and draw significantly more constituents to the polls, ensuring the local government responds to the wants of the broader population rather than small groups of highly invested voters.

At the University of Michigan level, even-year elections would likely increase student input because more students vote during larger state and national elections. Input from diverse populations helps ensure that local government is truly representative and accountable for its diverse groups of constituents. Though some argue that those who do show up to vote are voters who are well-educated in city issues, with longer terms, we hope to see candidates who are more serious about disseminating information about their campaigns. Ideally, this will not only increase voter turnout, but also bring those voters to the ballot with more adequate information to make an educated vote for city officials. 

In addition, four-year terms would likely amplify the productivity of elected city officials while in office. Holding elections every two years forces officials to divert valuable time away from governing to campaigning. Expanding terms allows council members to focus energy on the types of long-term projects critical to developing cities such as Ann Arbor. Furthermore, it gives city officials time to gain a more nuanced understanding of the city’s constituents and issues.

Those opposing the proposal argue two-year terms actually enforce more accountability of elected officials — running for re-election means officials must engage with constituents more frequently, and potentially changing seats allows voters to voice their concerns about quickly changing local events more frequently. Though two-year terms do force candidates to critically engage with voters during election cycles, the small voter pool in odd-year elections reduces accountability to the broader population. This also encourages more pandering to single-issue voters and less independence for city officials to actually accomplish their initiatives for the city.

However, increasing the term length is no panacea. While increasing city officials’ term length may increase accountability and enhance elected representatives’ productivity, Ann Arbor still must make significant strides toward a more democratic election process. Council primaries occur in August, meaning a very small group of voters (and even fewer students) decides on the candidate pool before the actual election in November. The current partisan primary system also urges candidates to run under a party banner. The fact that no Republicans have held elected office in Ann Arbor in the past 10 years — and exceedingly few even run — exacerbates the partisan primary system’s stifling of choice. 

Moreover, four-year terms may prompt more voter participation because a four-year term in office carries greater weight. However, extending terms to four years may encourage straight-ticket voting, as voters associate local officials with candidates at the top of the party’s ticket. This may lessen serious engagement with local candidates and make local issues unnecessarily partisan. In fact, Ann Arbor is one of the only cities in Michigan that still relies on partisanship in local elections and governance. Many local governments have abolished partisan elections to promote meaningful engagement with local issues rather than voting for whichever candidate is associated with a preferred gubernatorial or presidential candidate. Ditching the partisan primary system in addition to expanding terms might significantly improve Ann Arbor’s democratic process.

Expanding term length from two to four years will significantly improve voter turnout across diverse segments of Ann Arbor’s population and increase elected officials’ productivity on complex issues. Though much work remains to be done on improving the primary system, the Daily believes expanded term length will help significantly strengthen Ann Arbor’s democratic process.

Correction appended: This editorial initially used the word limits to refer to term length. It has been updated to correct that.