November Elections


Ann Arbor is one of three Michigan cities where candidates run with political party labels. Most people in the city vote for Democrats, so the August Democratic Primary is usually more important than the November general election.  This is a problem, because many voters are out of town in August. The 2014 primary turnout was only 17% in Ann Arbor precincts.

The turnout in November elections  is usually 2-3 times larger than in August. The city should should amend its charter so that the important elections happen in November, when more people are able to vote. The simplest way to do this would be to have a single non-partisan November election. Alternatively, the city could adopt instant runoff voting, or some other technique to keep party labels, but still have a single election in November.

Since 1992, low-turnout August primaries have usually been the most important local elections.

According to the former city attorney Bruce Laidlaw, city council had primaries in February and elections in April between 1851-1992. In 1992, a group of Democrats succeeded in moving the primaries to August and the elections to November.  Many people in Ann Arbor vote straight-ticket for State and Federal candidates in November elections, so the democratic candidates for city council almost always win. This is especially true when the governor or president is up for re-election. This means that the most important city elections are low-turnout August primaries.

The city can make it easier to vote by moving local elections to November.

We should pick the time of elections to make voting easy for as many people as possible. In Ann Arbor, this means elections should be some time during the academic year. Otherwise tens of thousands of students, as well as many U of M employees, will not be able to vote in person. Michigan law does not allow people who have registered to vote by mail to vote absentee the first time they vote, so many students can only vote in person. August elections disenfranchise tens of thousands of people, which is unnecessary and unfair.

August elections are also a bad time for many other people. A Gallup poll shows that 31% of people in the Midwest vacation in August. Vacationers who want to vote must apply for an absentee ballot, which is an unnecessary hurdle to voting.

If the Summer is ruled out, then city elections should occur sometime  between September and April. A convenient way to accomplish this is to combine them with already existing November elections. The only argument I have heard against this is that it would lead to a “cluttered ballot” that could overwhelm voters. This does not seem like a real problem, as the inconvenience of voting on two separate days is much worse than the hassle of a slightly longer ballot. Having a single November contest seems like the most reasonable way to make it easier to vote. This election could be partisan or non-partisan.

November Elections should be non-Partisan.

Some argue that party labels give voters valuable information. If a person knows nothing about the candidates, the label could hint at what the candidate’s values and positions are.

However, giving voters a minimal amount of information is not always better than giving them nothing. If each candidate had their race or religion listed next to their name, voters would have more information, but there is no reason to think it would improve election outcomes. Irrelevant information encourage voters to make decisions based on unimportant factors.

Even relevant information can be misleading. If each candidate had to state whether they supported one specific proposal, then that issue could gain more political importance than it deserves. For example, if the ballot listed candidates, and then whether those candidates think ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft should be legal, voters would gain one piece of relevant information, but that issue would gain undue influence.

Each piece of information on the ballot changes the way the contest is framed. The creation of the ballot is itself political. Reasonable people disagree, not only on what candidates they prefer, but on what information should determine those preferences.

Partisan elections use common perceptions of Republicans and Democrats to frame local elections. I would rather frame the elections as contests between individuals, and then let people offer competing interpretations of what the choices between them represent.

A counterargument is that some people need the party labels in order to understand anything about the candidates. Some people do not have the time or background knowledge to research the candidates and make their own conclusions. However, it does not seem reasonable to try to get completely uninformed people to vote. It seems better for people with no knowledge of the candidates to vote randomly, so that their net-effect is small.

If non-partisan elections prove to be unpopular, instant runoff voting is a less desirable alternative.

If non-partisan elections end up being too unpopular to succeed, instant runoff voting could be a way to have a single November election with party labels. Multiple candidates from each party could run in a single election, and voters would rank the candidates. If no candidate wins a majority of the first-choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated, and everyone who voted for that losing candidate would have their second choice count instead.

For example, In the 2000 election between Bush, Gore and Nader, instant runoff voting would have allowed Nader supporters to list Gore as their second choice. If Nader lost the election, their votes would then go to Gore.

I asked Lawrence Kestenbaum, the county clerk, if instant runoff voting would be legal. He thinks it would be, but that it would probably require a fight with the state and a challenge in court. He also thinks it would be difficult to implement in presidential and gubernatorial elections because of current voting equipment. For these reasons, it seems simpler and more fair to have a single non-partisan election in November.