I published this originally in the “Additional Thoughts” section of my Aug 2, 2020 newsletter:
This week, we consider an item that was added to our agenda late (Friday) and is likely to prompt significant discussion because we were unable to submit written questions ahead of our meeting (according to our Council Rules, questions to the agenda must be submitted no later than Wednesday). Agenda item DC-1 would add a ballot question in November, amending our charter to allow ranked choice voting for City Elections in anticipation of potential changes in State law.
Ranked choice voting is currently not permitted under Michigan State law, but two State House Bills have been proposed on the topic. You can find them here:
House Bill 5281
House Bill 5282
This weekend, I reached out to our State Rep. Yousef Rabhi – he is one of the sponsors of HB 5281/HB 5282 – to better understand what ranked choice voting (as defined by the State) would look like in Ann Arbor. First, he told me that neither of the current bills are likely to pass, but that he is going to re-introduce other bills on the topic in the next legislative session. Yousef also acknowledged that, as written, the State law would likely be aimed at the overwhelming majority of local municipalities who hold non-partisan elections for local officers.
Ann Arbor is one of only three communities in the state of Michigan that maintain partisan elections for local officials. If HB 5281/HB 5282 did pass, most Michigan communities would benefit from highly inclusive local elections: a diversity of candidates from multiple parties could appear on a single ballot to be ranked and judged in a way that measured community preference without “splitting” the vote. As proposed in DC-1, Ann Arbor would adopt ranked choice voting but maintain the party divisions that limit participation. Ranked choice voting would apply twice: first within partisan primary elections in August and again in November for the general election.
Under ranked choice voting as proposed in DC-1, Ann Arbor’s partisan primaries for local officials would continue to happen in August (timing that effectively excludes our student population), with marginally improved opportunities for independent/third party candidates in November. Our partisan elections mean that ranked choice voting in August would be limited to a single party – crossover voting between second or third parties is expressly prohibited by State law. There would be less risk of a third candidate “splitting” the vote, but only within a single party primary. According to HB 5281, ranked choice voting for City Officers must be the “only election on the ballot.” In our November elections, a Democratic candidate would retain party affiliation, but local candidates would no longer benefit from straight ticket voting; ranked choice voting must be on a separate ballot.
Ranked choice voting has been promoted by many as a way to better reflect community preference, create more opportunity for independent/third party candidates, and prevent a “split vote” in which a candidate wins an election with less than majority support. These are three goals that Council aimed to address last year when we voted to put non-partisan elections on the ballot for voters to decide. Last year’s proposal for nonpartisan elections would have allowed for August contests between three or more candidates but require a contested 2-candidate (runoff) election in November, so that Ann Arbor’s student population could participate in choosing local leaders. A majority of Council supported putting that proposal on the ballot, but it was vetoed by the Mayor.
I have many questions about agenda item DC-1 and I know that my colleagues will also. Ranked choice voting is clearly a much better measure of community preference (particularly among more than two candidates) but it works best outside of party primaries, where voters can rank multiple candidates regardless of party. If Ann Arbor aims to have inclusive elections that measure community preference best, our local contests must happen in November, when our student population is in town to vote.
None of this is likely to be apparent to the average voter who sees this question on the ballot. As proposed in DC-1, the ballot question will read:
Shall the Charter be amended to provide that the Mayor and City Council members are to be nominated and elected by a Ranked Choice Voting method in the event that State law allows for it?