One of the most significant agenda items from the October 3, 2022 City Council meeting was a failed effort to put a ballot question to voters in November 2023. The resolution in agenda item DC-3 would have allowed voters to consider changing our City charter to establish nonpartisan elections for City elected offices, as is the practice in all but two other communities in Michigan.
DC-3 (22-1626) Resolution to Order Election, Approve Charter Amendment of the Ann Arbor City Charter Sections to Establish Non-Partisan Nomination and Election for the Offices of Mayor and Council and Determine Ballot Language for this Amendment (7 Votes Required)
The reform would have the effect of making sure that our elected leaders are chosen in high turnout general elections in November, rather than in low turnout partisan primaries in August. If more than two candidates petitioned to run for Mayor or City Council, all candidates would appear on a primary ballot in August, without party affiliation. The two primary candidates receiving the highest number of votes in August would then appear on the November ballot, again without party affiliation.
This shift away from partisan primaries is an important step toward more inclusive elections and, looking ahead, would help us implement Ranked Choice Voting. Ranked Choice Voting is an election reform proposed by City Council last year, placed on the November 2021 ballot for public consideration, and approved by voters. Unfortunately, approval of this reform had little effect because Ranked Choice Voting is not currently permitted under state law.
In a 7-4 vote, the Mayor and his allies on Council rejected a ballot question for non partisan local elections. In discussion, they bemoaned the grave hazard and “collateral damage” this ballot question would cause to our local processes.
Members of Ann Arbor City Council are effectively chosen in low-turnout partisan primaries in August. Our November elections are rarely contested. Starting this November, every single member of our City Council will have been elected by this system, as part of a single alliance/slate endorsed by Mayor Taylor and with the support of coordinated, expensive campaign management. A relatively small set of large donors – including some of the candidates themselves – have exploded the cost of competing in these local races.
Given this reality, I was surprised by many of the talking points and scare-mongering offered in opposition to even a ballot question about nonpartisan elections.
In debate, Council Member Radina argued:
“The only thing that has recently prevented the City from having competitive general elections is the lack of credible Republican, independent or third party candidates willing to step forward and make the case to the electorate why they should shift away from Democratic candidates.”
This is a remarkable statement, given the actual facts of recent Council elections. In 2018, an independent candidate from Ward 1 was considered so very credible that Mayor Taylor supported and endorsed their candidacy. That independent candidate competed in a November general election against a Democratic candidate who – despite having won the Democratic primary – failed to earn the endorsement of the local Democratic Party.
The general election of November 2018 is notable because straight-party ticket voting had been suspended for that election cycle; all votes for local partisan candidates down ballot required an intentional and specific stroke of the pen. The results of that general election: the candidate chosen in the Democratic primary won with 74% of the vote. The power of the “D” next to a candidate’s name meant that a credible, independent candidate had no chance, even when a Democratic nominee failed to earn local party support and even in an election without the benefit of straight-party ticket voting.
Every member of City Council knows exactly what prevents competitive general elections: in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, only one candidate can run as the Democratic nominee.
Since 2020, our local process has greatly reduced the number of candidates who can effectively compete to become that Democratic nominee. Elections that assign local Ward representatives are now overwhelmed by the coordinated efforts of a City-wide political machine, which is well-funded by a relatively small number of the wealthiest people in (and outside of) our community, and by several Political Action Committees (PACs). A candidate is no longer “credible” if they do not have access to upwards of $40,000 to compete in these races.
The Power of Money
Council Member Linh Song defended the money in our elections:
“Aren’t we lucky to have folks care enough about our City, our libraries, our state to fight for essential rights? I think if you talk to folks who give five, ten, fifteen dollars to each one of us, I think the majority of us had donations of less than $100. Please look that up. And correct me if that’s incorrect.”
I looked it up. Linh Song’s campaign in 2020 raised a total of nearly $45,000, over half of which was $23,000 of her own money. The under-$100 donations to her campaign added up to approximately $3,500 or less than ten percent.
Since 2018, the amount of money spent on local partisan primaries for City Council has doubled, tripled, or quadrupled (depending on ward) in large part due to a relatively small number of donors (or self-funding wealthy candidates) able to invest thousands of dollars across multiple Council races. A reference to folks in our community who “care” is also a reference to a coordinated network of folks who have a great deal of money.
The current reality of local campaign finance is relevant to what one public commenter claimed at the beginning of our meeting:
“Nonpartisan elections tend to produce elected officials more representative of the upper socio-economic classes than of the general populace and aggravates the class bias in voter turnout.”
In fact, this exactly describes our present system of electing leaders through partisan primaries. Local primary elections are now prohibitively expensive for anyone who is not wealthy or strategically chosen to receive support from a network of wealthy donors and PACs. Our City leaders are elected in low turnout August elections that exclude thousands of students, in addition to all registered voters who don’t participate in partisan primaries. Campaign finance reports reveal how our partisan elections are clearly driven by (and more representative of) powerful economic interests and upper socio-economic classes.
That public commenter self-identified as a member of a construction worker union and referred to union opposition to nonpartisan elections. He did not mention that he works with a political action committee that has donated thousands of dollars to local Council campaigns (including a $10,000 campaign contribution to Mayor Taylor in December 2021). He also did not mention that the system of partisan primaries has been financially lucrative to him, personally: his consulting business (Blue Path Solutions) collected $33,000 to professionally manage the 2022 summer campaigns of Mayor Taylor and the three candidates Mayor Taylor endorsed in contested primaries.
In the July issue of the Ann Arbor Observer, candidate Jenn Cornell (Ward 5) explained the coordinated professional campaign management that happened this summer:
“Like the other candidates endorsed by the mayor, she’s hired Blue Path Solutions to manage her campaign. She says that’s “expensive,” but won’t say how much she hopes to raise.”
Voters Not Insiders
In describing the hazards of nonpartisan elections, Council Member Radina warned:
“It would shift power away from voters to select their party’s nominees and instead empower a handful of local party insiders to hand-select de-facto nominees through their more exclusive endorsement processes”
Local Ward nominees are already chosen by a handful of “local party insiders,” who oversee campaign finance and professional campaign management for their selected candidates. In 2022, Mayor Taylor and the three candidates he endorsed raised a total of $200,000; half of that ($100,000) came from fewer than thirty households or PACs. Thousands of students (and many others) who only participate in November general elections see mostly uncontested races for local offices, because August primaries are decisive. Within the current system of partisan primaries, City leaders were chosen this year by the 25% of registered voters who turned out in August.
Why this matters
Council Member Eyer quoted a one-page undergraduate student project when she argued:
“Nonpartisan elections allow minority party candidates to “sneak” into office in cities where their party is unpopular.”
We often boast about the values of Ann Arbor and what it means for us to be a Democratic stronghold. Political grandstanding around what it means to be liberal/progressive conveniently ignores the influence of profit interests on our local policy decisions. On issues as diverse as public power, the Gelman Plume, investments in affordable housing, City contracting, and regulation of our rental market, I have seen for myself how much the current majority of our elected Council is beholden to local and regional profit interests.
The reality of our local partisan primaries disproves every point of scare-mongering around non-partisan elections. Big money campaigns in low-turnout primary elections are driven not by a groundswell of community support but by a relatively small number of wealthy contributors and PACs. Local elections are dominated by candidates in alliance with profit interests, rather than community interests. The candidates who “sneak” into office in Ann Arbor are not Republicans — they call themselves progressive Democrats.