With a heavily Democratic electorate, Ann Arbor City Council elections are typically determined during primary season. But since a large portion of Ann Arbor voters absent in August, some residents have called for changes to election dates.

According to an interactive panel discussion hosted Tuesday by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area, the dates aren’t likely to change in the near future.

About 25 attendees, including councilmembers Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4), Julie Grand (D–Ward 3) and Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2), joined a panel of experts inside the Ann Arbor District Library to discuss election dates, voter turnout and partisanship in Ann Arbor elections.

Panelists first responded to questions prepared by the LWV — a nonpartisan organization that promotes political awareness and activism — and then took questions from attendees.

The panel consisted of John Chamberlin, a professor of public policy, Lawrence Kestenbaum, the Washtenaw County clerk and Joseph Ohren, a political science professor at Eastern Michigan University.

The panel stressed that election dates in Ann Arbor cannot change without changes to Michigan Election Law.

“When we talk about changing the schedules of elections in Ann Arbor, the elections pretty much have to be in November and the primaries in August,” Kestenbaum said.

According to a 2005 amendment in section 168.641 of the Michigan Election Law, elections in cities across the state can take place in either February, May, August or November. Kestenbaum said there has been discussion at the state level about eliminating the February option.

Grand said she is interested at looking into changing term lengths as well as the years elections occur. Currently, city council terms are two years, and elections take place annually — with half of the seats contested in odd years and half in even years.

Holding elections every year creates problems for City Council, Grand said, as councilmembers are less willing to make compromises and cooperate when they are focused on reelection.

“Having gone through it recently in the last couple of years, I am concerned about the amount of time and effort that it takes to run an election versus governing so I am interested in other ways that we could structure elections,” she said.

Discussing term length, Grand said a change to four-year terms would help city councilmembers engage in increased coalition building and more substantive work. She also said elections should only occur on even years, so there would only be elections for new councilmembers every two years rather than every year.

“I would love to see us go to four year terms and (only) even years,” she said. “I think that would help with voter turnout. I think it would also help constituents so they could more closely identify their councilmembers. So if you have someone for a longer term you can develop a relationship with that person, you know that’s my person to go to.”

The panel also discussed partisanship in elections. Ann Arbor is currently one of only three municipalities in Michigan that have partisan elections. A partisan election means candidates are permitted to have party labels attached to their names on the ballot.

“I am inclined to think partisanship is not problem, at least in Ann Arbor, with the exception of the fact that Republicans don’t seem to want to run for office in Ann Arbor because the label is not something they wish to have tagged to their name these days,” Chamberlin said.

In places like Ann Arbor, where most candidates represent one party, party labels matter less, and sub-parties or factions can form, he added.

After the panel, Westphal, the city councilmember, said increasing voter turnout is critical. To this end, he is open to hearing new ideas, such as converting to a nonpartisan system.

“My goal is to get meaningful ballots in front of more people,” Westphal said. “However that’s done, I think the voters choose to do that. I just want to have more participation.”

Like Westphal, all three panelists articulated concerns with voter turnout. Ohren said the city does not need to increase the number of voters, but the engagement of those who vote.

“I think the question really is how do we engage the community in the decision making process. I think that’s what’s important to us,” Ohren said. Not how many people vote but rather how many people participate in the discussions over issues.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.