Additional Thoughts (Aug 8, 2020) – Nonpartisan Election Ballot Proposal

Aug 8, 2020 | City Council

The following was originally published in my Aug 8, 2020 Newsletter in the “Additional Thoughts” section

Recently, I have seen much discussion about the relative advantages of nonpartisan elections and ranked choice voting. I believe that either of these reforms, separately, would improve our local voting system. Ideally, we could implement both: local nonpartisan ranked choice voting would allow all candidates (and multiple candidates from a single party) to compete in a single high-turnout election in November.

Last week, I voted in favor of putting ranked choice voting on the November ballot. For a variety of reasons, it failed to gain majority support and, for advocates of ranked choice voting, this was disappointing news. However, it’s important to remember that such a ballot initiative (even if presented to voters and approved by voters) would have no immediate effect on how we conduct our elections. State law prohibits ranked choice voting, and staff tell us that our current tabulation equipment is inadequate to implement such a system.

This week, City Council will consider a November ballot question on a different strategy for election reform, one that actually could be implemented: nonpartisan elections. It will be the second time this Council has voted on the issue.

The nonpartisan election proposal appears on the Aug 8 2020 agenda as item DC-1:


Last year, Council considered a proposal to make our city elections nonpartisan and place that question on the ballot in November 2019. That ballot question would have asked the voters to consider structuring our elections in a way that guarantees a contested race in November, when participation is higher and our student population is in town. It would allow three or more candidates to compete in August and the two most successful candidates would compete in November. If only two candidates declared for a local office, there would be no August election and they would compete in November. 

On July 1, 2019, seven members of Council (CM Bannister, CM Eaton, CM Griswold, CM Hayner, me, and CM Ramlawi) approved putting nonpartisan elections on the November 2019 ballot. The Mayor issued a veto and efforts to override his veto failed. Eight votes are required to override a mayoral veto. 

I wrote about this in my July 13, 2019 newsletter:


This week, we revisit the same proposal from July 2019: a method of nonpartisan elections that would guarantee a contested race in November, when more members of our community can participate in choosing City leadership. Like ranked choice voting, it would prevent a vote “split” because every contested office would always result in a two-way race. It is not a perfect system, because – like the ranked choice voting proposal last week – there is potential for two expensive campaigns (summer and fall). However, nonpartisan elections are an improvement on our current system, which allows local candidates to win elected office in August with a plurality (rather than a majority) of votes.

Local nonpartisan elections are both legal and standard in Michigan. We are one of only three Michigan communities that have partisan local elections (the others are Ionia and Ypsilanti). Unlike the ranked choice voting ballot question, a ballot question about nonpartisan elections would have an actual effect on how we conduct our elections. It is a reform that does not require us to guess about how state law may or may not change in the future. Nonpartisan local elections are an achievable improvement on our current system: our City leaders would always earn their seats by a majority of votes and contested races would include more voters (particularly our student population).

I believe that this week’s vote is likely to be (or should be) different from the last time we considered the issue in 2019. Where previously only seven members of Council voted in favor of nonpartisan elections, this week there should be one additional vote (enough to override a mayoral veto). In our debate in 2019, CM Smith explained why he could not support a ballot initiative at that time, but would support it this year:

Chip Smith: “I’d just like to say that if we’re for democracy and the most participation possible, then let’s put this on the November 2020 ballot when most people are going to turn out. We’re going to have an 80 percent turnout instead of a 20 percent turnout. I could do that.”

July 1, 2019 City Council meeting (timestamp 4 hrs 39 min)

Either of these reforms – nonpartisan elections or ranked choice voting – would be an improvement to our current system. Implementing both of the reforms, together, would be ideal: multiple candidates (from whatever party) could be included on a single ballot, timed to include the whole of our local population. Nonpartisan ranked choice voting would be the best method for choosing our City leadership. When state law changes to permit ranked choice voting in our local political contests, I expect Ann Arbor can be a leader in implementing that system. Right now, ranked choice voting is not possible. In the meantime, I hope that our community can have a meaningful discussion (and a ballot question) around the kind of election reform that is possible: nonpartisan elections.