The following was originally published in my July 13, 2019 Newsletter in the "Additional Thoughts" section
One of the more important items on this week’s agenda is an effort to override the Mayor’s veto (DC-3). At our last meeting, Council passed a resolution to put the question of non-partisan elections on the ballot as an amendment to our City charter. According to the resolution, the voters of Ann Arbor would have the opportunity to consider this issue and vote on it at the next election in November. Since the Council vote (7-4) in support of this ballot question, I have seen and participated in a lot of conversation on the topic. I am hopeful that some of it is persuasive to at least one of my colleagues; we need eight votes to override a veto.
In our democracy, it is fairly difficult to pitch an argument for keeping a decision AWAY from voters, particularly one with the goal of engaging and including more voters going forward. At the state and national level we see the damage done when people in power make it more difficult to vote, district lines cause over/under representation, and more nefarious efforts prevent votes from counting. To the extent that our partisan system is an anomaly, it is even more difficult to defend the partisan system. We are one of only three communities in Michigan that use partisan identifiers for these local offices; the other two are Ypsilanti and Ionia. Yet, the Mayor has taken this position: the voters should not even be allowed to consider the question.
What I’m hearing from defenders of the Mayor’s veto is that this partisan system is essentially so holy and sacred, it should be kept beyond the reach of voters to decide. Some have suggested that a “D” conveys such crucial and valuable information - connected so deeply to values we hold dear - that we don’t dare lose it for fear of accidentally electing the wrong person, with the wrong values. It’s an interesting argument for this particular time and place. Of the eleven current council members (including our mayor), ten are Democrats and one is Independent, yet we find plenty of room to debate issues. We disagree on specific, practical strategies for achieving what we all want: a safe and functional community that equitably and sustainably serves a diversity of needs to the greatest extent and as efficiently as possible. However, when our local controversies flare hottest and more substantive ideas run short, debate can slip into petty fights over labels. Debates that should be about the facts on the ground and long-term vision, become vague histrionics about “values,” and what constitutes the “progressive” or “Democratic” position.
I’ve heard a few arguments in the last two weeks that I find bizarre. E.g. Someone suggested that the partisan elections and the “D” next to candidates’ names are what “protects” us from becoming a conservative and right-leaning town. I can share my small experience of one election and one political campaign: when I talked to residents last summer, I did meet a few people who asked me to identify myself in a partisan way, stating that this was the most important piece of information they needed to know in order to decide how to vote. The vast majority of voters asked me specific questions about what I thought re: issues in our town. They asked me to explain my thinking about these issues or volunteered their own strong feelings about them. They wanted to hear more about who I was and why I wanted to help lead our town. We need more of these conversations, not fewer. To the extent that some people do vote exclusively on party identifiers, I would argue: removing partisan labels would force more explanation of positions and perspectives at our local level. In my view, that is a GOOD thing.
I have said again and again: our local government is structured in a way that we can talk to each other and WITH each other. Community conversation and engagement should be the goal, trying to understand perspectives. Too often, folks resist conversation, preferring to talk AT each other. I recently read the opinion that these partisan labels are valuable at our local level because they quite literally put a stop to any conversation at all - it was viewed as a positive that someone with the wrong label will get the message to “stay out” and “quit.” That might be the worst possible argument in favor of maintaining small elections, where very few voters participate in electing our city leaders.
One of the more novel arguments I heard at the Council table in opposition to the resolution was this: The November 2019 election is not likely to be large enough to be a fair representation of voters (proposed alternative: put it on the ballot in November 2020 instead). An argument in support of engaging more voters would be compelling were it not for the fact that our current system engages so few; preserving the status quo simply allows for more candidates to be elected in one more election that excludes non-Democrats, students, and general-election-only voters.
When decided with finality in August, our Mayor and Council Members are elected by a small number of voters that excludes everyone who can’t (or doesn’t) vote in Democratic party primaries. The suggestion of “put it off until 2020” came from someone whose re-election would actually happen in 2020, i.e. the status quo would be preserved for the benefit of that person’s next election (and likely re-election) by the same small number of Democratic primary voters. I noted with surprise that a former council member - who voted in FAVOR of this very same ballot question in 2018 - has now reversed himself and supports the mayor’s veto. Interesting!
It is factually true that the 2020 November election will surely include more voters than the election this November 2019. However, someone pointed out to me: how carefully will this question be considered when it is on a ballot as long and large as the one in November 2020? Will the number of voters turning out to vote on a $1 billion AAPS school millage in November 2019 be more or less than the number of Democratic primary voters picking our local city council members in August 2020? Is the goal really about representation re: deciding this charter amendment, or do we simply fear a 2019 result that ultimately engages and includes MORE voters in the 2020 local elections?
I have been a Democrat since I was old enough to pay attention. I remember being a freshman in college, so excited about a rally with President Bill Clinton that I stayed up all night, then waited outside for hours in frigid temperatures. A summer internship in Washington D.C. was twice as thrilling for me because Democrats were in power and leading our federal government at the time. Whether or not party identification appears on a ballot, I would identify myself that way to the extent that it helps people understand who I am. I know that this is true for others as well.
Personally, I actually prefer campaigning in the summer— the weather is nicer and I’m not teaching in the summer. However, I value elections where more voters are engaged, more votes can actually count toward the result. People go on vacation in the summer, fewer people vote in the primaries, university students are not even in town yet. I support the resolution to put this idea on the ballot and if we can get it on the ballot, I would vote for it. I hope that we can gather eight votes to override the mayor’s veto.
P.S. In writing this post, I’ve done a little reminiscing about my college experiences. For your amusement, below is a picture of me in the summer of 1995 with U.S. Representative from Missouri (and former House Majority Leader) Dick Gephardt.