Arbor Update

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Larcom, Kestenbaum discuss alternative means of electing City Council

23. November 2005 • Murph
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With the Democratic hegemony of Ann Arbor’s City Council complete, people have started to discuss alternative ways of choosing Councilmembers. Ann Arbor News columnist Geoff Larcom suggests non-partisan Council elections:

My concern lies with a system that seems to shut out candidates with the wrong party label while Dems run unopposed in other wards.

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?

“Potholes wreck Republican cars as much as Democratic cars,’’ says Ingrid Sheldon, who served as a GOP mayor from 1993-2000.

Blogger (and County Clerk) Larry Kestenbaum has weighed in with an impressive account of Ann Arbor’s Council-picking mechanisms over the past 30 years, and some arguments against a non-partisan system and other popular recommendations:

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.
. . .
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.
. . .
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.

  1. I contacted Larry Kastenbaum the other day to express my ardent support for IRV ( and opposition to the Diebold Vote-Shredder system (, and I received a rather surpising reply when I asked about the cost of returning to the prior system.

    Thought I’d share it. He wrote:

    “Ann Arbor still has their old Optech machines. Note that this is exactly the same technology as the Diebold machines—just a different make of tabulator. I don’t know whether the city of Ypsilanti kept theirs. The
    rest of the county has only the Diebold Accuvote equipment. While in theory the cities could bring their old equipment out of storage (at some cost and inconvenience to the city and county), the rest of the county has no such alternative.

    “The problem we are likely to face in a few years is that the flimsy
    Diebold Accuvote machines will wear out, and there will be no money to
    replace them.”

    I can’t understand what he could mean that Diebold and Optech machines are the same except for the tabulator. What about the interface?

    And I still fail to understand why the Optech machines were put into storage in the first place. Diebold’s record has been abysmal and probably had something to do with the “irregularities” in Ohio and Florida last year.
       —Adam de Angeli    Nov. 26 '05 - 06:29PM    #
  2. Michigan’s ONLY user interface for voting is the voter marked optical scan paper ballot.

    This is not at all the same as the unverified, un-recountable touch screen interface which Diebold has sold to some other jurisdictions out of state. Regardless of vendor, there is ALWAYS a paper trail in every Michigan election.

    Yes, there are some slight differences between Optech ballot layout and Accuvote ballot layout, but not noticeable to most people unless you compared them side to side.

    Though Ann Arbor used “connect the arrow” ballots, the state has mandated “darken the oval” ballots, and these would have been used regardless whether the vendor was Diebold or Optech.

    My predecessor as county clerk was required by the state to choose a single vendor for the tabulators, which the state would pay for. No surprise that she chose Diebold. All but three of the 25 jurisdictions in the county had been using the Diebold Accuvote tabulators for ten years. All but four of the local clerks voted to continue using them.

    And Ypsilanti Township, which had been on punch cards, was given Accuvote tabulators using state money. The state took the position that this locked the county in to Accuvote.

    The same day I took office, the election consolidation law took effect, upending the whole system for administering and scheduling local election. To implement this law, I needed the cooperation of every local clerk.

    To try to change the vendor decision, I would have had to go to war, not only with the state, but with almost all of my local clerks, who were already unhappy over the new duties I had to ask them to take on in election consolidation.

    I had to pick my battles, and the vendor issue was not at the top of the list.

    As a check on the Diebold tabulators, we will randomly select precincts and conduct a hand count in those precincts, precisely as recommended by verified voting activists.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Nov. 27 '05 - 03:49PM    #
  3. I noticed the change from “connect the arrow” ballots to “darken the oval” ballots. I didn’t know this change was mandated by state law.

    It’s great that we will continue to have recountable paper ballots.

    Keep up the great work, Larry!
       —David Cahill    Nov. 27 '05 - 04:13PM    #
  4. Obviously the goal is to create as few accidentally-created ambiguous votes as possible.

    I myself prefer “connect the arrow” in that respect, but opinions vary on this. Certainly most people get lots of experience blackening in ovals in school.

    One weakness that affects both ovals and arrows: if you write in a choice, you still have to vote for the name you wrote in by blackening in the oval or connecting the arrow in front of the write-in space. Some people neglect to do this.

    In the recent Chelsea city election recount, about 5% of votes for write-in council candidates were lost because of failure to blacken in the oval.

    It was Secretary of State Teri Lynn Land who chose and mandated the ovals, not state law as such.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Nov. 28 '05 - 01:49AM    #
  5. Larry,

    What would it take to get Instant Runoff Voting implemented in the area? Would it need to be a county-wide or state-wide decision, or could it be done just for the city of Ann Arbor?
       —archipunk    Nov. 28 '05 - 05:53PM    #
  6. It could be done by amending the Ann Arbor city charter. Any other level would probably require state legislation.
       —Lawrence Kestenbaum    Nov. 28 '05 - 06:39PM    #
  7. After reading the Observer’s piece about downtown development and such, I have some further thoughts about the political impact of nonpartisan city council elections (with or without IRV) in Ann Arbor.

    Much as local bloggers criticize the hegemony of the Democratic Party in city elections, it seems that the political push for affordable housing and density comes from social justice activists within the Democratic Party.

    Take away party labels and the party primary, and you sever the link between social justice goals and the city council.

    Before you disparage Democratic Party activists as evil gatekeepers for council candidates, consider that they may be the only reason there is any attempt to balance green and neighborhood considerations with housing and urbanism goals.

    Among odd year election voters, there are very few students and a great many long established homeowners. I doubt there is a majority in any ward that thinks of affordable housing as a high priority, or would choose candidates that made it a prime issue.

    The Observer’s description of the Calthorpe/Scanga workshop vindicates Dave Cahill’s characterization of what went on, with green construction paper pasted in everywhere.

    Without the constraint of a partisan primary, Ann Arbor voters would elect a council that was “greener than green”. Resistance to development might well become the only salient issue.

    The current council might not be interested in enacting, say, a citywide four story building limit, but candidates advocating such a policy would be hard to beat in a nonpartisan race, especially in an odd year.

    Yes, it would be a good thing to move the political decisionmaking from August to November, but it makes little difference unless students participate in much, much larger numbers.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Nov. 29 '05 - 03:03PM    #
  8. Come on, Larry—the first half of Vivienne Armintrout’s piece was ridiculous (though the wrap-up was fairly balanced). Framing “parks” as equalling “quality of life” is nonsense. How about being able to afford rents or young professionals’ being able to buy a house in the city? That’s part of quality of life, which people like Cahill and Cowherd don’t seem to care about.
       —Dale    Nov. 29 '05 - 03:30PM    #
  9. Dale, I’m not framing the issue that way. But a whole lot of people in this town do, and they’re the ones who vote in off-year city elections.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    Nov. 29 '05 - 03:48PM    #
  10. I wasn’t saying that you were. Armintrout’s piece printed and rephrased the Cahill/Cowherd talking points and most of it wasn’t very good. You cited it as vindicating criticism of the Calthorpe process when it merely repeated it.
       —Dale    Nov. 29 '05 - 04:14PM    #
  11. I thought Armentrout’s piece was one of the best local political analyses I have ever read. (OK, I admit she quoted both me and my wife. 8-) )

    Her most penetrating point was that the people who Councilmembers rely on for their support don’t agree with the Councilmembers! I hadn’t realized the situation was that simple. Maybe we don’t really have a schism within the Democratic Party rank-and-file as a whole, but rather between the rank-and-file and the Councilmembers. If Armentrout is right, then next August’s Democratic primaries could easily result in victories for a slate that would pledge to enact a four-story city-wide height limit. Remember the Broadway Village Haiku…

    I’m sorry there isn’t a more appropriate item than this one in which to discuss Armentrout’s article, but none of the powers that be here on ArborUpdate have entered a generic item on planning in a l-o-n-g time.

    Hint, hint.
       —David Cahill    Nov. 30 '05 - 12:19AM    #
  12. The draft of the final Calthorpe report is now on the City’s web site. It runs 72 pages.

    Could someone puh-leeze start an article so that people can discuss it?
       —David Cahill    Nov. 30 '05 - 09:21PM    #