You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 5:54 a.m.

Time to consider nonpartisan elections for city councils

By Staff

Ah, August. The time of year when much of our community goes on vacation, the universities are at their quietest, and the pace of life around here noticeably slows down.

Oh—and we decide who's going to be on the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti city councils. That is, a few of us decide—those who are still in town, who are watching local politics more than flowers and fireflies, and who can manage to remember there's an election taking place.

That tends to be not very many. In Ann Arbor, even-year primaries typically draw less than 20 percent turnout, even with a relatively full ballot. Last year in Ypsilanti, the two wards with contested primary races saw turnout of 20 percent and 12 percent. Off-year elections—like this year's, which takes place Tuesday—fare even worse: In 2011, Ann Arbor had three contested races in August, and they all saw turnout of under 10 percent.

This would be less of a concern if there were truly contested races in the November general election. But in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, that rarely happens. While we do occasionally see someone run as an independent, it's awfully hard, if not impossible, to win a council election as a Republican on either city's partisan ballot.

So that means that most races are decided in August by default, when participation and engagement are at their lowest. (And most college students, an important constituency in both cities, aren't here at all.)

The primary election itself will remain necessary. But there is one fairly simple way to improve the system: Remove the partisan aspect from the city council elections.

Not only would this tend to give more voters a say in the final election (primaries could still be used to winnow the field when needed), it simply makes sense. The work of overseeing our cities focuses on infrastructure, building projects, zoning, providing services. These aren't really issues for the national parties. Even in cases where an argument can be made that a party's platform does apply—Democrats tend to be more environmentally concerned, for example—partisanship seems inappropriate on the local level. Protecting the Huron River doesn't need to be a partisan concern.

The most common argument in favor of partisan elections is that a D or R label gives voters an easy clue on what the candidates believe and value. But does it really? On the local level, candidates for city office can simply affiliate with the dominant party whether they really embrace it or not. Conversely, a true-blue party member still might separate from the fold on individual issues. So what's the point?

Last year, Ypsilanti voters narrowly defeated a new city charter that would have made its city elections nonpartisan. But other charter changes were proposed as well, so it's a little hard to read that as a clear referendum on the concept—and even if we do, the closeness of the vote (14 votes out of nearly 6,000 cast) shows substantial support for the idea.

Remarkably, only three cities in Michigan have partisan council elections (Ionia is the third). Nationally, most major cities—including Austin, Seattle and Portland—vote nonpartisan.

It's hard to imagine voters in Lansing or Grand Rapids arguing that their elections would be improved by partisanship. This year's primary in Ann Arbor takes place Tuesday, Aug. 6. Isn't this a good time to wonder whether our elections might not be improved by a change?



Wed, Aug 7, 2013 : 5:04 p.m.

There's a reason that all but three cities in Michigan have non-partisan city makes more sense, very few very local issues relate directly to partisan platforms. One, it would encourage more people to get involved in city elections and two, it might actually force incumbents, especially the ones elected in even years. to actually go out and work and meet with their constituents instead of just relying on straight ticket voting to put them into office.


Tue, Aug 6, 2013 : 3:25 p.m.

I would take the argument one step further: The concept of a primary is obsolete in a one-party city. The primary has become a face-off (sometimes officially, sometimes not) between two factions. If we have a two-step election, it would make more sense to follow the example of California and other places: Have everyone run in the first round on the same ballot. Have a run-off between the two top scorers in the second round.

Joseph Welch's Ghost

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 3:23 p.m.

The current system does not disenfranchise anyone. Republicans do not win because Ann Arbor does not want Republicans to serve on City Council. The party label is a liability because of the ideology for which it stands.

John Floyd

Thu, Aug 22, 2013 : 5:11 a.m.

Mr. Ghost, While it is possible that party labels can a voter something about their views on foreign policy (although President Obama's re-appointment of George Bush's Secretary of Defense casts doubt even on that), the question remains: what does party label have to do with re-paving Miller Road? And what relevance does party label have when anyone can declare themselves a member of any party at any time? In Ann Arbor, as has been pointed out, former Republicans now run as Democrats. What does party label tell anyone about the politics of those people?


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 1:19 p.m.

In the Glorious People's Democratic Republic of Ann Arbor, we are a single party worker's paradise. We got to choose between candidates that have been approved by the ruling party. Elections here are as meaningful as the elections in the former Soviet Union.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 10:31 a.m.

Bravo. I agree. Too late for another primary though which has no options. The Hieftje Arbor Party wins again.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 3:58 a.m.

Thanks for the opinion I noticed this resource failed to mention Ypsilanti Township -- where Board of Trustees, Clerk, Treasurer and an elected Supervisor comprises the local governmental unit. And in this case, I'm glad you failed to mention Ypsi. Twp., as I believe candidates should run for positions in government based on political affiliation -- whether that be Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, Natural Law party or Independent. Voters have a right to KNOW what political positions potential candidates for elected public office holds.

Glen S.

Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 3:58 p.m.

"While we do occasionally see someone run as an independent, it's awfully hard, if not impossible, to win a council election as a Republican on either city's partisan ballot." So what is the problem? It seems that the vast majority of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti residents have decided to elect Democrats to represent them. How is that any different from out-county areas that routinely elect Republicans? Voters definitely need to do their homework, and shouldn't trust that a party label tells the whole story -- but it is often an important indication of whether they will -- or wont' -- have a certain outlook, or support particular policies. As a voter, I want to have more information, not less, and I consider party identification to be an important factor.

Basic Bob

Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 4:45 p.m.

"Voters... shouldn't trust that a party label tells the whole story" Look at the number of straight ticket ballots cast each general election. It is about 50%. Half of all voters who bother to vote don't check a single name! It's safe to say they haven't even looked at their homework.


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 3:27 p.m.

Nonpartisan in Ann Arbor is non exsistent, a one party rule from extreme left to left is not beneficial to constuients, it's our way or the highway. Good luck.


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 2:46 p.m.

Isn't this primary open because there are no Republican candidates for the November election?


Wed, Aug 7, 2013 : 7:35 p.m.

Thank you, but not really. Eaton was the one who actually told me that with his slim defeat last time that there were a number of ballots spoiled because of votes by Republicans and independents for him weren't counted because there was a Republican running in the main election later. This election the party winner was unopposed this fall by the other party, so anyone could vote. That's how he explained it, but I've yet to see every publish that info.

David Cahill

Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 4:56 p.m.

The primary is "open" because in Michigan we don't register by party, and anyone can self-declare as a Republican or Democrat. We only have a primary if more than one candidate files to run for a particular race in the same party. For example, there are no Democratic primaries this year for the First, Second, and Fifth Wards because only one candidate filed. Does this answer your question?

4 Real

Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 2:03 p.m.

Just get rid of off-year elections to start. Elections are costly to run and yield poor results when very few vote. Have the top two vote getters serve the ward. You could simply enact this, save money for the City and test it out for a decade.


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 1:11 p.m.

I agree with Mayor Schreiber. The bigger issue is that a candidate is running for office every year and has to appeal to the parochial interests of a small number of ward constituents. We need a charter amendment to make council terms 4 years and elect half the members at-large so the interests of the whole city are represented.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 4:46 a.m.

The only way all interests of a city will be represented is to have parochial interests. You're not going to have that with at-large memberships. They had at-large city councilors in Detroit and they all came from small pockets in nicer, affluent areas while leaving the poorer communities with no representation at all. Even if they divide membership between at-large and ward representation, the at-large members can form a coalition with those from a ward or two and completely defeat the purpose of having all interests represented at council.


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 1:47 p.m.

In what respect, specifically, do you think a Councilmember deleteriously catered to their own Ward to the harm of the City as a whole?


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 1:40 p.m.

If half the members were elected at-large, that would lead to half the members having to appeal to the "parochial interests" of a small number of city politicos. How is that an improvement?

David Cahill

Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 1:06 p.m.

The nonpartisan idea is a nonstarter. People need and want to know a candidate's basic political philosophy, as well as his/her position on garbage. The party identification is best way of providing this information. Nonpartisan elections in Democratic areas are largely promoted by Republicans so that they can run "stealth" campaigns depending on voters not knowing their real beliefs. Some years ago, I ran into future Republican Mayor Ingrid Sheldon when she was running for City Council. I noticed that she did not have "Republican" on her lit. I asked her why. She said she couldn't win the election if people knew she was a Republican.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 3:07 a.m.

"Nonpartisan elections in Democratic areas are largely promoted by Republicans so that they can run "stealth" campaigns depending on voters not knowing their real beliefs." This sounds like another unsubstantiated claim you've made here. First of all, only Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti (and according to, Ionia) are the only cities that do this. That means Republicans can't be promoting this in other areas since the other areas already have them. Second of all, why would Ingrid Sheldon run away from the Republican label at a time when Republicans had control of city council? Your comments are hearsay and what's the point of a guy who's a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat making such a baseless claim since it can't be verified?


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 5:29 p.m.

Our family knew Ms. Sheldon as a friend and neighbor, and your suggestion that she was running a stealth campaign is off the mark.

Basic Bob

Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 3:42 p.m.

Party affiliation is meaningless. One local candidate was appointed to take her husband's Republican county commissioner seat and subsequently ran for election as a Democrat. Party affiliation only serves to draw outside PAC money into the campaign and capture the straight ticket vote.


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 1:44 p.m.

I disagree, David, and I believe your last paragraph proves the point. Thinking that party affiliation sufficiently identifies a candidate's beliefs is folly. What we have now is a system in which the people voting think they know what a candidate stands for, rather than actually knowing. In Ann Arbor in particular, I believe we have an unhealthy one-party system and as the editorial notes, the election is decided in August by a small portion of the city. For local politics, a nonpartisan system would help throw away useless labeling of opposing candidates and, hopefully, what we would have is an engaged populace choosing a candidate for that person's record and/or plan of action for the City Council.

Chip Reed

Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 12:26 p.m.

Republicans dominated Ann Arbor city politics for much of the 20th century.. If you look at ex-mayor James Stephenson's self-published autobiography, you can get a good sense of some factors for the Party of Lincoln's gradual demise here. He's still bitter about the 60's, as are many others of his party. If a party can define itself in terms of what it is for, rather than being against things that have already happened, they might stand a better chance of regaining some degree of relevance.

John Floyd

Thu, Aug 22, 2013 : 5:02 a.m.

Chip, You make a good point from a psychological health angle, but it doesn't address our uncontested general elections. The issue is larger than the relevance/irrelevance of any one particular party.

Paul Schreiber

Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 12:22 p.m.

I strongly disagree with this opinion. The "winnowing the field as needed" would occur in the August primary as it does now. No improvement. Also, candidate Democrat and Republican labels communicate the large fiscal and social issue stances to voters. The non-partisan election for Washtenaw County circuit court judge between Jim Fink and Carol Kuhnke showed that political party affiliation does matter. But how about changing the city council terms from two years to four? Is it time to vote on updating the Ann Arbor city charter?

Steve Bean

Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 3:05 p.m.

Paul, you've made the typical, weak, specious argument of pointing to a judicial contest as being relevant to city council contests.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 4:01 a.m.

Thank you Mayor Schreiber for offering an opinion on this article!


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 2:37 a.m.

Mr. Mayor, party labels don't communicate anything because in a city like Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, where there are more Democrats than Republicans, you end up having Republicans running for office on the Democratic ticket. Plus, the issues are so localized that neither party addresses them in their national or state platforms. What is the Michigan GOP's stance on Water Street?


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 2:53 p.m.

Why should what is probably a majority of voters (minority Republicans and a LARGE group of independents) be disenfranchised by the election? Tons of people would still vote for a democrat in the fall election but maybe think the OTHER candidate is better, but doesn't want to get stuck into blindly voting straight ticket. Particularly pertinent in an election with two Democrats, one who used to be a Republican, showing how meaningless these labels are at this level. The only people who would be against it are the Mayor's cronies.


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 1:22 p.m.

Can you share with us the benefits you see in increasing the term of service for a city representative from two to four years? I cannot think of any. The people of a ward have the right to responsive leadership that is truly representative. Four years is too long to wait if change is needed.


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 12:14 p.m.

California has gone to non-partisan primaries, the top 2 vote getters end up on the ballot, regardless of party. I would prefer that system for ALL of the Washtenaw (Michigan really) offices. In California it extends all the way to Congressmen and Senators going to Washington. It made a huge difference in the tone of the campaigning and the positions of many officials, since they were not just appealing to their "base".


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 12:05 p.m.

There is no need for a primary election in a nonpartisan system. Other Michigan cities have eliminated the primary when converting to nonpartisan elections. Traverse City has a single city council election in November. It works fine. The August primary is a bad fit for Ann arbor and should be eliminated along with the partisan system.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 11:49 a.m.

I completely agree with this editoria! Fiorello LaGuardia, New York City's greatest mayor, famously said there is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up Gotham's garbage. A city leader's job is to set the priorities so that basic city services are delivered and to build consensus around a vision of what is required long-term to keep the city vibrant with a high quality of life. That is not happening today in Ann Arbor. We must assure our basic services: fire and emergency medical services that meet national standards; a police car in front of your door in a reasonable number of minutes to help in an emergency situation; and roads that are in good repair. They must ensure safe water is available and not poisoned by cancer causing toxins, that storm water is properly controlled, that city government is honest and free of corruption and conflicts of interest. If they cannot do these things, and we cannot honestly say they are today, our great city will be at risk. The current system isn't working and it's time for a change!


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 10:56 a.m.

I agree wholeheartedly with this editorial. Diversity of opinion on the Council would help the city immensely.


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 1:34 p.m.

I second that sentiment. Whenever there is one party rule for too long things start to go sour. Partisan politics should have no part in determining how best to spend our tax dollars. Council members who feel the need to be guided by a partisan political philosophy are doing their constituents a disservice. Thanks for keeping this idea in play.


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 10:48 a.m.

This is a well spoken editorial. General elections in both Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti have become meaningless due to partisanship and the one-sidedness of it. A higher turnout would result because of the change.


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 11:11 a.m.

I agree with the first part of what you wrote, but I'm not so sure of the last part. Off-year elections are like school board elections. They tend to have lower turnout because the only people who show up to vote are those most directly involved with the school system's/city's politics (i.e., teachers, city workers, etc).


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 10:34 a.m.

Why not just establish two different parties that are exclusively Ann Arbor based? John Hieftje's coalition can form their own "Arbor Party" and those who oppose his policies could form another. Both could still affiliate with the MI Democratic Party and the DNC. It's pointless to have the real election take place in August.


Mon, Aug 5, 2013 : 3:20 a.m.



Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 1:33 p.m.

That first group already has a name - the "council party".


Sun, Aug 4, 2013 : 10:51 a.m.

Err, I should also say that was right on the money with this editorial.