City Council votes to put local election reform on November ballot

Thursday, July 7, 2016 - 10:42pm

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor listens during a City Council meeting on Thursday.

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor listens during a City Council meeting on Thursday. Buy this photo
Sinduja Kilaru/Daily

 

In November, Ann Arbor residents will vote on a ballot measure that would extend the terms of city councilmembers and the mayor to four years — with the goal of boosting voter turnout in local elections — following a 7-4 vote by City Council Wednesday evening.

However, a parallel resolution seeking to overhaul municipal elections into non-partisan blanket primaries — where party identification would not be listed for candidates — failed in a 7-4 vote.

The two resolutions were introduced for debate by Council with the intention of comprehensively reforming local elections to boost sagging voter turnout.

Currently, the mayor and each city councilmember must run for re-election every two years, with five council seats up for election in any given year. Because there are no high-profile, top-ballot races — such as presidential or congressional campaigns — in odd-numbered years, voter turnout in August primary elections are often half of even-year numbers, and odd-year November turnout can be as low as one quarter of the corresponding even-year.

By extending terms of office for city councilmembers and the mayor, half of council would be up for re-election every two years during a high-profile general election that would drive turnout for down-ticket races.

Furthermore, many municipal races are not meaningfully contested in November due to Ann Arbor’s partisan election system, which is only used by two other cities in Michigan.

To be on the November ballot, candidates for city office must win either the statewide Republican or Democratic primary election in August, unless they are independent. However, given the demographic makeup of Ann Arbor, no candidate has sought election to municipal office as a Republican in Ann Arbor for over a decade, meaning many races are simply uncontested in November. City Councilmember Jane Lumm (I–Ward 2) remains the sole non-Democrat on City Council.

If a non-partisan election were to be adopted, then the top two receivers of votes in each August primary race would be guaranteed to advance to the November ballot, even if it would mean two Democrats would face against each other.

Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1) supported putting the non-partisan election proposal to the November ballot, saying party labels in municipal elections often project inaccurate impressions of individual candidates to voters.

However, other councilmembers, including Mayor Christopher Taylor, argued party labels still played an important role in informing voters on the values of candidates. Furthermore, Taylor said the lack of viability for Republican candidates in Ann Arbor is due to the ideological makeup of the city and not a result of any flaw in the city’s election system.

The extended-term ballot proposal was approved 7-4 with Councilmembers Lumm, Eaton, Kailasapathy and Graydon Krapohl (D–Ward 4) voting against, while the parallel resolution seeking to overhaul municipal elections into non-partisan blanket primaries failed 7-4 with only Councilmembers Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2), Lumm, Chuck Warpehoski (D–Ward 5) and Kailasapathy voting in favor.

Regarding term limits, Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) argued that even-year elections would not only exclusively improve voter turnout, but longer terms increase continuity of leadership and allow councilmembers to pursue longer-term agendas.

Councilmember Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4) countered Briere’s point, saying that more frequent elections for city office would force councilmembers to be more accountable to their constituents and engage the public more frequently. Eaton also argued that even though turnout is higher in even-year elections, many voters in those elections simply vote along party lines without fully understanding city issues, while voters in lower-turnout odd-years would be better engaged in local issues.