Ypsilanti, as most of you probably know, has partisan City Council elections, which means that, in the primaries, Democrats run against Democrats, and Republicans run against Republicans. Well, come Election Day, Ypsilantians will be voting to amend the City Charter, and change that. The following analysis comes from our friend Richard Murphy, the former City Planner of Ypsilanti.
On this November’s ballot, City of Ypsilanti voters will be asked if we should approve a revised City Charter. The Charter is effectively the city’s constitution, which governs how the city should be run, and can only be changed by the voters. The proposed revision appears here. (A version which shows the edits can be found here.) There’s been a lot wrong with the Charter Commission’s process, but at least one of the proposed revisions is appealing: changing City Council elections to a non-partisan system.
Ypsilanti is one of only three cities in the entire state that has partisan Mayor and City Council elections–the others are Ann Arbor and Ionia, and I know at least Ann Arbor to suffer from some of the same problems that Ypsi does. Because both cities reliably vote overwhelmingly Democratic in November, the partisan ballot effectively moves the entire local election to the August Democratic primary, forcing all candidates to run as Democrats to be viable, regardless of their actual beliefs. (Next month’s ballot includes exactly 1 candidate in each of our three City Council Wards. In Ann Arbor, similarly, 4 of the 5 council races are uncontested.)
First, a partisan ballot disqualifies a pool of people whom I’d otherwise consider highly qualified candidates. The Federal Hatch Act of 1939 bars various public employees from running for partisan office if they are responsible for administering Federal funding, or in some cases if their positions are paid for at all by Federal funds. In 2010, Ypsi Ward 2 Council candidate Claudia Pettit had to withdraw from the race due to the Hatch Act, and there have been several other recent cases in Washtenaw County.
Ypsi has a surprising concentration of residents who are County or State employees, and who would make excellent Councilmembers. By retaining partisan elections, though, we’re effectively saying that we don’t want Councilmembers who have backgrounds in public safety, economic development, public finance, public health–if you work in one of those fields at any level, chances are your position is partially Federally funded.
Second, the fact that the election that matters is held in August effectively disenfranchises voters. In 2010, about 2,000 Ypsilanti voters turned out for the August Democratic primary; about 4,500 turned out for the November election–a simple calendar change there would have doubled the number of votes cast for City Council. Additionally, choosing our Mayor and Council through the August Democratic primary means that anyone who wants to vote in the Republican primary doesn’t get a voice on the local elections, because they are only allowed to vote one side of the August ballot. This is a case where local Democrats should probably be supporting moving the local election that matters to November: if we’re going to get bent out of shape for things like asking voters to check a box declaring that they’re not breaking the law, because that offers too much of a barrier to voting, isn’t it pretty ridiculous to maintain a local election calendar that halves the number of voters who get to participate? (Yes, I would love if all qualified voters came out to vote in August, and February, and May, but removing artificial barriers to ballot access is better than blaming the victims.)
Finally, I’d like to see our local elections go non-partisan simply because today’s party identifiers don’t mean a whole lot at the local level, and only serve to obscure discussion about candidate’s actual positions and qualifications. Are we expecting our City Council to vote on closing Guantanamo, or decide the DREAM Act, or authorize remote drone strikes, or consider national health care reform? What’s the Republican position on a fire department of only full-time staff vs. a hybrid full-time/on-call system? What’s the Democratic position on whether the parking ratios in the Zoning Ordinance are accurate? Do we really want voters in November picking our city council based on whether or not they have the same letter after their name as the President? Especially when the Democratic identifier on Ypsi’s local ballot has become so meaningless, because any serious candidate in recent years runs as a Democrat, regardless of their actual beliefs?
This summer’s screaming match about whether Mike Eller was a “real Democrat” is a great demonstration of the problem. Eller ran as an Independent in Nov 2008 and got beat hard, so ran in the Democratic primary this summer to take advantage of voter presumption. Both online and in person, his supporters attempted to deflect any criticism by hiding behind the party label. They asserted, in effect, that the only things that mattered were the campaign’s talking points–beyond that, the “D” after his name should tell you everything you need to know. The opposition had to break down that shield of party identification in order to actually talk about his beliefs. (I did enjoy when the conversation took a turn for the surreal, with Eller supporters arguing that Councilman Murdock was similarly a sham because he had been part of the Human Rights Party in the ‘70s, as if “he’s for human rights” is an effective attack…)
I’ve been told that Eller disproves my point: that it was “only because he was tied to his past party affiliation that he could be beat” this summer, and therefore the party labels are important. Not true — Eller’s past affiliation with the America First Party was at the state level, even as he ran as an Independent in Ypsi. Even if we had been running a non-partisan election in 2008, Eller would have still had exactly the same affiliation with AFP to reference this time around. It’s the beliefs he stated then, and his refusal to disavow them this year, that made the difference in every conversation I had with my neighbors, not whether or not he was a “real Democrat”.
And, sure, folks like Rodney Nanney are backing the non-partisan elections bit, which is always a good litmus test: is this really just a ploy to flood the council with conservatives by allowing them to leave behind the baggage of party identification? Again, the number of (what I consider) conservatives that we see run as Democrats seems adequate proof that they’re unafraid of sheep’s clothing, and the current system provides no protection against closet Republicans. (Besides, if you think Rodney’s support is a good litmus test, you’ll still have that yardstick to measure candidates in a non-partisan election.)
The proposal, a jungle primary in August with the top two candidates advancing to November, does have one major flaw: currently, our Mayor and Council elections are mercifully short, effectively ending with the August primary every year. Considering the intensity we all bring to every contested election around here, I’m not sure anyone would survive a campaign that lasted all the way to November. So here’s my proposal: if you want to vote against the Charter, but like the idea of removing artificial barriers for both candidates and voters with a non-partisan election, we can bring a petition next year to amend the charter to provide a November, non-partisan, instant runoff voting system for our local offices.
update: Our Mayor has now weighed in. The following comment was left by Paul Schreiber in the comments section earlier today.
Murph makes a good point about the Hatch Act, but I will be voting against the proposed Ypsilanti city charter for two reasons. One, party affiliation quickly communicates positions on issues to voters. For example, the 22nd circuit court electon is non-partisan. Jim Fink and Carol Kuhnke are running for this position. One is a staunch conservative and the other is a progressive liberal. Knowing party affilition for this race informs voters better than any other piece of information. I’m not saying that judicial elections should be partisan. I am saying that legislative elections like city council should be partisan.
Secondly, the proposed charter has no automatic review by a vote of the people every 16 years. The current charter passed in 1994 has that. That’s why 16 years later, in 2010, voters approved convening a charter commission to consider a new charter. The charter commission eliminated this review vote in the proposed charter, so the new charter would last indefinitely until city council took action or a citizen petition was filed. I think all charters should have a periodic review by the voters.
update: Saying, “I would like to dispel at least one myth right up front: the non-partisan proposal does not represent a right wing conspiracy to take over the city,” Charter Commission member Bob Doyle has also weighed in. His comments, in their entirety, can be found here.