Last week, The Michigan Daily’s Editorial Board endorsed a controversial City Council ballot initiative to extend council members’ terms from two years to four years. This proposal made its way onto Tuesday’s ballot by a 7-4 vote this past July and has been a divisive topic in Ann Arbor local politics ever since, showing a close vote as of 2:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.
Proponents argued that by moving council elections to even-numbered years, there would be an increase in voter turnout for local elections, as the elections would coincide with top-ticket races. Those in opposition to the proposal believe that it is a self-serving tactic for City Council members because it will decrease incumbent accountability by severely reducing the time they spend engaging with voters.
Despite each side’s opposing views, there is one common thread in each argument: the need for council member accountability. Those in favor assert that increasing the volume of the electorate in each cycle would result in a council that is more accountable to a more diverse group of constituents, whereas opponents of the ballot initiative feel that more frequent elections and a smaller, more invested electorate is a more effective way to ensure council members answer to their constituents. Though both arguments have merits, they each neglect the real problem: the fact that all but two of the six local candidates (including the mayor) ran unopposed on Tuesday’s ballot.
How do we increase voter turnout for local elections in a way that doesn’t give an unfair advantage to incumbent City Council members by extending City Council terms? The answer is fairly simple: Restructure so that the general elections are contested. If it’s clear that the victor in an August primary will not face an opponent in November, then that election should take place in November. If such a primary has more than two candidates, then the top two vote-getters move on to a contested race in November. Those extra three months could be crucial for another candidate to gain support and mount a real challenge to an incumbent. Such a revision would ensure contested general elections without eliminating the possibility of a Republican or Independent running for City Council or mayor.
Such an approach is not without precedent. California, as an exceedingly Democratic state, sought to put an end to elections for state legislative and U.S. congressional offices being decided in primaries. In January 2011, California implemented the Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act. This law altered primaries so that all prospective candidates — regardless of party affiliation — share one ballot, and the two candidates who receive the most votes move on to the general election.
Though California’s law does not apply to local office and puts Republicans, Independents and Democrats on the same primary ticket, differing from my proposed solution, it echoes the same sentiment: Uncontested general elections are a detriment to the democratic process. Thus, if it is greater accountability that seven of our City Council members demand, then let’s demand a real answer, because ensuring greater turnout in an uncontested election is not one.
Given the fact that Ann Arbor is a predominantly Democratic city, it is no shock that Republican candidates have difficulty gaining traction in local elections. With this absence of Republican challengers, a majority of the council seats in any given election cycle are determined in the August primaries, where many incumbent council members face other Democratic candidates. The only incumbent facing an opponent on Tuesday was Chuck Warpehoski (D), who defeated David Silkworth (I).
If proponents of a term extension are actually concerned about greater turnout for local elections, their proposal doesn’t show it. Though it is true that turnout is higher in even-numbered years, the fact remains that there is no real competition come November. Because incumbents are running unopposed in the general election, doubling their terms would do less to increase accountability and more to reduce the frequency of council members interacting with and being evaluated by their constituents.
In the August primary, voter turnout in Ann Arbor stood at a dismal 15.5 percent and every incumbent candidate who was in a contested race came out victorious. Though their victories could be partially attributed to a solid track record as council members, it could also be a product of their experience and the resources at their disposal (as incumbents) to galvanize the relatively small number of votes required to win a primary. In this case, for all but one council member, a victory in August meant a victory in November.
Despite its shortcomings, this misguided ballot proposal did achieve one critical feat: It illuminated the rarely discussed problem of underrepresentation in local elections. However, rather than seeking a viable solution to this issue, the City Council leveraged it as a guise to further entrench themselves in their seats. If greater accountability is truly what our council desires, a term extension is senseless. A four-year term would only diminish the ability of Ann Arbor residents to assess our local policymakers while limiting the ability of outside candidates to challenge incumbents. In contrast, reforming Ann Arbor’s local primaries would ensure a contested general election, empower non-incumbents and make our City Council members accountable to a larger group of constituents.
David Donnantuono is an LSA junior.