Who runs Ann Arbor? Some council members call for reform

Every August election primaries are held in Ann Arbor. And every August, nearly 90 percent of Ann Arbor shrugs its shoulders and stays home. In a city dominated by a single party that means a very small number of citizens are determining who sets the policies for our community. Some local leaders would like to things change.
Have you decided how you're voting in next week's election, Ann Arborites? If your answer is, "What election?" you're hardly alone. Over the past decade, voter turnout in the August primary for city council during odd numbered years has only once crept above 10 percent. In 2005, it didn't even reach six. In even years, it's not all that much better.

If your follow-up question is, "Who cares?" consider this: These sparsely attended elections regularly determine Ann Arbor's leaders. If you're at all concerned about housing affordability, the arts, downtown development, public transit, socioeconomic diversity or any number of other local issues, the answer to that second question should be obvious. And though proposals aimed to increase voter turnout through reforms failed to gain approval by city council in time to appear on this year's November ballot, election reform could be hot topic locally in the year to come—but only if residents demand it. 

Who Runs Ann Arbor?

Ann Arbor is one of three cities in Michigan and about 25 percent nationwide that holds partisan city council elections. It's been a decade since a Republican was elected to Ann Arbor city council, and a quarter-century since the body was majority Republican. This means, with the exception of one Independent council member, the candidate elected in the Democratic primary in August wins the whole shebang. By the time people actually bother to show up to the polls in November, the victor is either running unopposed or against a long shot opponent. 

So those few voters who come out to August primaries are, essentially, running Ann Arbor.

"Putting meaningful choices in front of more voters gives us a better reflection of what the community wants," says Westphal. "It's very dangerous, I think, to stay down the path of having half the elections attended by a very narrow, very motivated group of voters."

"Meaningful choices" would mean giving voters a more accurate idea of who the name before the "(D)" actually is before they get to the polls—or before they decide to skip the local election altogether. 

"When I knock on doors in my ward," says Council Member Kirk Westphal, "people who don't traditionally vote in the local elections will share with me that they see the council is primarily Democratic and don't see the need to follow local affairs because they're in 'good hands.'"

In fact, votes on critical issues are often narrowly decided in Ann Arbor's council chambers. Despite being overwhelmingly Democratic, council is regularly divided on issues some might assume those in the same party would agree upon. Whether or not those votes accurately represent the opinion of the full electorate is anyone's guess.

Proposed Election Reform

This is why two proposals to take election reform options to the public were up for discussion this month. The first sought to give voters the opportunity to weigh in on the partisan nature of elections. The second additionally included a proposal to switch council member's two-year terms to four years (staggering elections in the better attended even year elections).

Both were voted down following a discussion of whether a problem exists at all —Council Member Graydon Krapohl called the system "although not perfect, is not broken"— and if nonpartisan elections or four-year terms would, in fact, impact low voter turnout. To a number of council members, however, there is clearly an issue.

"I probably benefit from the current system that we have," Council Member Jack Eaton stated during the discussion. "I can campaign to a very small population and then reap the rewards of having won a Democratic primary…but I'm also a Democrat who believes that we really want to have as many people vote as possible, and if that means we move our elections to November and make them nonpartisan, that's something I'm willing to do."

But a common theme of the discussion that lead to a 7-4 vote against the partisan election reform proposal (with Jane Lumm, Westphal, Eaton and Sumi Kailasapathy voting in favor) and 10-1 against the one addressing two-year terms as well (with Westphal voting in favor), was that the issue simply hasn't arisen as a major concern among constituents. Though the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area has actively supported nonpartisan elections locally and the National Civic League recommends them as well, council is clearly looking for a sign from the greater public that elections need reform in Ann Arbor. 

Westphal is hopeful the proposals brought to council this month, though unsuccessful in their aim, will result in exactly that.  

"I will be pushing to get something on the ballot next year," he says. "I hope to have some really great community discussions before then."

Natalie Burg is a senior writer at Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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