and the life of a county clerk
From the Clerk-Register. Today's message to my staff.
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum.
In his column in Monday's Ann Arbor News, Geoff Larcom urges a change to nonpartisan elections for city council.
Now that all eleven members of the council are Democrats, such calls are only to be expected. And indeed, maybe this is a time to think about how we elect our city officials. But first, we should consider how we got here.
Fifteen years ago, when I moved to Ann Arbor, it was a veritable museum of archaic political structures. It wasn't just the old-style lever-handle mechanical voting machines, fascinating but scarily unreliable. This was just about the only city in the state still holding annual elections on the traditional Monday in early April; most cities had moved to biennial elections in odd-year Novembers. Ann Arbor's ward system, with two members elected per ward and none at large, was typical in the 19th century, but increasingly rare since the 1950s, at least in Michigan. And Ann Arbor was and remains one of the last cities in the state with partisan city elections.
Because the city elections were annual, partisan, always contested, and not held at the same time of year as other elections, both parties had active organizations in the city which were generally regarded as more important than (and totally independent of) the county political parties. In most parts of Michigan, the county party is where the action is, but among Ann Arbor Democrats in 1990, involvement in the Washtenaw County Democratic Party was considered a kind of offbeat interest. The city Democratic Party had a lot more going on. Each ward had an active Democratic Party organization, too, and the ward chairs had positions of considerable influence.
Those internal party dynamics are all changed now, perhaps because the city elections were moved from April to November, and because a number of key local party activists now live outside the city. The Ann Arbor Democratic Party is just a shadow of the organizational powerhouse it used to be; the energy which used to animate it has been transferred to the county level.
local moderate Republicans wear the Scarlet "R,'' the perception they subscribe entirely to the state and national GOP view on social issues. That's now a ticket to oblivion in this town.
Changes at the national level have consolidated and sharpened the concept of what it means to be a Democrat, and what it means to be a Republican. Ann Arbor's political establishment was long accustomed to treating state and national parties as irrelevant, but our voters have embraced what might be called The New Partisanship. Which is to say, given the scant appeal of national Republicans in Ann Arbor, they have embraced the Democratic Party.
Why not make these local elections non-partisan? What do the basic municipal questions of water rates, leaf pickup, police patrols and tree taxes have to do with being a Republican or Democrat?
The short answer is that all these issues, not to mention questions of development, transportation, law enforcement and city resource allocation, implicate the values of the decisionmakers, and one of the rules of the New Partisanship (on both sides) is that you can't trust the other party's values.
It may not be literally true that a Republican council member would invariably vote to widen major streets, regardless of trees and neighborhoods, whereas a Democrat will invariably vote against, regardless of traffic congestion, but it's not a bad first approximation for the priorities a "typical" Republican or Democrat might bring to the table.
We ask a lot of our voters. For example, my personal vote, in southwest Ann Arbor, helps choose almost a hundred elected officials: five federal (president, vice president, two U.S. Senators, one U.S. Representative), six state (Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, state senator, state representative), 32 members of state education boards (eight each for U-M, MSU, Wayne State, and the state board of education), 24 judges (seven Supreme Court justices, seven Court of Appeals judges in our district, five circuit judges, two probate judges, three district judges), six county officials (sheriff, prosecuting attorney, clerk-register, treasurer, drain commissioner, and county commissioner in my district), three city officials (mayor and two ward council members), and 21 others (seven school board members, seven community college board members, and seven district library board members). If you're keeping score, that adds up to 97 officials theoretically answerable directly to me as a voter.
When it comes to election time, it's not easy even for an activist to cast an informed vote on every single one of those races. Hence, party labels are a labor saving device for voters. Straight ticket voting is often criticized, but it is very much on the upswing. With the new polarization, growing numbers of Democratic and Republican voters see the other party's values as being fundamentally wrong, so ticket splitting has little appeal.
Larcom points to other nonpartisan boards as an example of what the city council could become:
Non-elected boards of directors are not a fair comparison; school boards are very narrowly focused compared to city council, and are elected by a very small constituency of school board voters.
The problem with the talent pool for city council is that few people are really interested in serving. City council, partisan or not, is rightly seen as being Real Life Politics, under the hot lights of media scrutiny and the pressures of interest group lobbying. It is a myth that a change to nonpartisan elections would suddenly unleash a flood of highly qualified candidates. If political parties no longer had the incentive or responsibility to recruit candidates, we might well end up with fewer candidates instead of more.
The funniest part of Larcom's piece is his slam on the ward system and student voters:
A geographic strike against the GOP is Ann Arbor's pie-shaped ward system. Wards emanate from the city's center, so each holds a section of students who vote Democratic and often go straight-ticket.
First of all, the "pie-shaped" wards are mandated by the City Charter, which provides as follows:
SECTION 1.3 (a) (2): The five wards should each have the general character of a pieshaped segment of the City with the point of such segment lying near the center of the city so as to make each ward a very rough cross section of the community population from the center outward.
As far as I know, that language is original to the 1956 city charter. In other words, it was written at a time when Republicans were the majority party, and they chose this arrangement.
Further, until the 1970s redistricting, there was indeed a ward (the old 2nd) which was dominated by student voters. Around 1975, the wards were extensively redrawn, by Republicans over Democratic opposition, to eliminate the student ward and concentrate nonstudent Democratic areas in the 1st Ward. At the time, this was seen as a gerrymander to cement Republican dominance of the city council. And with very slight changes, those are the ward boundaries we still have today.
Perhaps UM students and today's city Republicans could make common cause to amend the charter and create a mostly-student ward in the center of town, removing student areas from the other four wards. But that wouldn't actually elect any Republicans. Student votes are not what made Ann Arbor overwhelmingly Democratic.
It's a surprisingly common misconception. Whenever I mention that Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County have become gradually more and more Democratic over the last thirty years or so, many otherwise intelligent people immediately say, "Oh, you mean because of the student vote."
Um, no. If anything, students as a group are more conservative and Republican today than they were, say, in 1972. And they make up only a small portion of the city's vote, and a tiny portion of the county's vote.
You'd think someone would have learned from Joan Lowenstein's election to the (formerly safe Republican) 2nd Ward city council seat over Jeff Hauptman in 2002. Republican poll watchers were all over the student precincts, obviously fearing that a wave of student voters would overwhelm their candidate. But the Democrat won every precinct, including all the completely nonstudent ones.
All that being said, I do recognize disadvantages to partisan election of the city council. In a one-party town, it means the "real" race happens during the August primary. That's not such a problem in even years, when there are many other partisan primaries going on. But in odd-numbered years, city council primaries are alone on the ballot, and draw few voters. If every ward has a primary, that single purpose election costs some $50,000.
The even-year and odd-year council seats are already somewhat different because of the lower turnout and greater focus on individual candidates in the odd year election. We could accentuate this difference, perhaps giving voice to a wider variety of interests and perspectives, while saving the cost of the August primary, by using nonpartisan "Instant Runoff Voting" (IRV) for the odd-year November seats.
IRV — already enacted in Ferndale and in San Francisco, and used to choose science fiction's Hugo Awards and the president of the American Psychological Association — is the system where voters indicate fallback choices if their first choice candidate is eliminated. If one candidate gets a majority of first choice votes, he or she is elected. However, if no candidate gets a majority among first choices, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are redistributed to the other candidates based on second choice votes. Repeat until one candidate has a majority.
IRV has its critics and drawbacks, as does every possible voting method including the one we commonly use. Many of IRV's backers see it as a way to get rid of the two-party system, which it most certainly is not.
But the most cogent objection is that Ann Arbor's Accuvote ballot tabulators do not have enough memory to accumulate all the possible combinations needed for IRV, or for any other ranked-vote system.
That's why I'm suggesting IRV only for the five city council seats elected in the lower turnout odd-year elections. The electronic tabulators would sum up the first-choice votes, which probably would yield a majority winner in most races. If no candidate had a majority, then the city board of canvassers would supervise a hand count of that ward's ballots to determine the IRV winner. Given typical turnout per ward in an odd year city council race, this would not be a very big job.
By contrast, Condorcet, which is arguably a superior voting method, would always require a hand count to determine the winner. And a hand count for city council among the tens of thousands of ballots cast in an even-year or presidential election would be a nightmare. IRV in odd-year races is very limited and practical by comparison.
Back in the 1970s, Ann Arbor briefly had partisan IRV for mayor only. The goal was to allow voters to support the Human Rights Party candidate without electing the Republican. Ballots were counted by hand; the HRP candidate was eliminated, and almost all of her votes went to the Democrat, who won a majority by a tiny margin. The process was orderly and fair, but the then-city-clerk was strongly opposed, and portrayed it as a mess; soon after, Republicans successfully sponsored a charter amendment to repeal it.
Many things have changed since then. The rationale for using IRV for the odd-year council seats would not be to guarantee any particular result. Rather, the goal is to get rid of the August odd-year primary. That would save money and broaden effective participation in choosing city leaders and policies.
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments
From the Clerk-Register. Today's letter to my staff:
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum.
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