The Upset that Wasn’t and the Ann Arbor Election Schedule

“All this has happened before and it will all happen again.”  §  In a sense that applies to political campaigns, and yet it is also true that each one is unique.  The recent 4th Ward Ann Arbor city council race (ending with the election of November 2009) was unusual in many ways. It also brought up an old debate about the Ann Arbor election schedule and its effect on how representative these elections are.

Marcia Higgins and Hatim Elhady at a Ward 4 candidate forum. Photo by the Ann Arbor Chronicle

As we previewed in an earlier post, the contest was between Marcia Higgins, a 10-year veteran and a Republican turned Democrat, and Hatim Elhady, a 23-year-old UM student (graduating this December) running as an Independent.

In the ordinary course of things, this should not even have been a contest.   Incumbency and experience should count for something, and usually do. She is a familiar member of the community.  Further, Higgins has apparently been a diligent council member, a member of key committees who often asked pointed questions of staff at council meetings.  But Higgins was the target of a lot of complaints about being “missing in action” “a zero”, and similar complaints about lack of constituent support, especially on Arbor Update. Further, she is one of the Council Party, the council majority faction who took some damage in August. And she faced an energetic and personable opponent who had a strong support base.

Higgins ran afoul of her constituents on several fronts.  She voted for the 42 North development though the South Maple neighborhood considered it out of scale and damaging to neighborhood integrity; after the original PUD was voted down by council, council approved a “by-right” site plan in spite of arguments by the neighborhood that it was not really in compliance.  Though the development is apparently not going through at this time, the approved site plan presents a risk.  Jack Eaton, a neighborhood activist, says, “The property where 42 North was to be built is still for sale. It is my understanding that the developer did not exercise the option to buy the property. The currently pending proposal to change the Area Height and Placement zoning regulations would allow an even more extreme project to be built on that site. The amendments would allow taller buildings to be erected on that property. If a development included under-building parking…, a new 42 North project could include more buildings on the same property….”  Accordingly, the South Maple Neighborhood Group endorsed Elhady.

Perhaps the most glaring problem for Higgins was the criticism that she and her fellow council member Margie Teall have taken for the city’s inaction on the Stadium Bridge.  The bridge (photos here) began to deteriorate visibly this last year after years of delay (an extensive consultant’s report is here). According to a February 2008 memo,  the city staff identified serious problems with the bridge in 2007, but  “We have not able to move forward on the preliminary design of the bridge over S. State Street or the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks because we are waiting for the 4th Ward City Council members to nominate and confirm a Citizens Advisory Committee to assist us with the public engagement process.” The delay meant that no “shovel-ready” plans were available when the federal stimulus money was made available, and the city did not apply for funding from that program.  The bridge is now truly scary to drive over or under.  It has become a symbol of mismanagement by a Council Party that has voted to build an expensive police-courts building while cutting services – and neglecting this vital piece of infrastructure.

In spite of all these negatives, she won by slightly less than 2 to 1. So what happened?  Did Higgins’ base of support reach farther than it first appeared?  Or did she outcampaign Elhady?

Looking at the results precinct by precinct is somewhat instructive.  Elhady won in his home precinct, #2, which is largely inhabited by students. But although Elhady was endorsed by the Michigan Daily, the other predominantly student precinct, #1, actually went for Higgins.  The total numbers of votes in the two precincts were low.  Elhady did relatively well in Precinct 7, the focus of unhappiness with Higgin’s lack of support on the 42 North development, and with absentee voters, but even there his percentages were lower than Higgins’.  Higgins did well in her home precinct (#4) and the adjacent #8 (counted together), as well as in the near-Burns Park precincts, #3 and #5 – and those were where the votes were. (Results from the Washtenaw County election reports.)

Precinct Higgins Elhady Write-in % Elhady % Higgins
1 21 12 1 35.29% 61.76%
2 17 25 0 59.52% 40.48%
3 191 69 1 26.44% 73.18%
4 & 8 450 201 6 30.59% 68.49%
5 193 86 7 30.07% 67.48%
6 315 161 6 33.40% 65.35%
7 361 301 2 45.33% 54.37%
9 347 233 5 39.83% 59.32%
AVCB 288 211 5 41.87% 57.14%
Totals 2183 1299 33 36.96% 62.11%

On the whole, it was a dignified campaign, and one in which Higgins was mostly missing in action (this was eventually explained as due to her need to attend to a desperately ill adult daughter). Although a headline on referred to the email scandal and Elhady was quoted in that story as saying the emails were “immature” and “inexcusable”, his campaign literature and the video interview in the same story make no mention of it. In that interview and in the story about League of Women Voters debate which Higgins was not able to attend, he emphasized instead his views of fiscal management and being open and accessible to constituents, as well as straight governance issues like the Stadium bridge.  At a Fourth Ward candidate forum, the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s account of the discussion has Elhady merely stating that he supported the recently defeated resolution to make the emails accessible. And indeed, although Higgins participated in some of the infamous email exchanges, she did not seem to engage in the nastiness displayed by some others.  Probably the most fire in the campaign was generated by the fuss over a strategic decision by Elhady’s campaign not to give an in-person interview to a former Ann Arbor News reporter, which resulted in a good deal of criticism on the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s resultant column and its commenters.  Still, in videotaped interviews elsewhere, he gave a good account of himself, and his final advertisement was earnest in tone, and carried some fine endorsements.  The greatest flaw in his campaign may have been a matter of timing; he chose early on to run as an Independent in the November general election, rather than in the August primary, when the Council Party suffered its defeats.

Elhady made a game effort to explain this decision on the Other Perspectives CTN television series, but his reasoning didn’t ring true.  Though he cited at various times a wish to appear independent and not subject to partisan pressures, it is clear that he was pursuing a student vote strategy.  In doing so, he was participating in the long-running debate about Ann Arbor’s electoral system.  Over many decades, there have been arguments about how our city council elections can be most fair and representative, and various factions have not hesitated to change the system to their advantage when possible.  Recently, UM students in particular have complained that the fact that most decisions are now being made in the August primaries has disenfranchised them.  Elhady apparently took this to heart. One of his early positions was to support institution of IRV (Instant Runoff Voting).  The way this works is that, in an election with more than two candidates,  voters express first, second, etc. preference for a candidate.  If no candidate gets a majority of the votes, votes from the candidate with the least votes are redistributed based on the second preference of those voters. Of course, this makes sense only when there are more than two candidates on the ballot, and it would replace partisan primaries.  Larry Kestenbaum, who is now the Washtenaw County Clerk, proposed using IRV in odd years only while retaining Ann Arbor’s partisan elections in a review of the history of our electoral system (2005).  His justification was that the odd-year primaries could be eliminated, and that would save money. Kestenbaum also said in an August 2009  Arbor Update thread that “From a public participation standpoint, making low-turnout odd-year August primaries the real decision point for city elections is a disaster” and suggested that moving all primaries to May would be an alternative to IRV voting.  But he also commented that the student participation in the August primaries was “non-negligible”.

IRV has most frequently been favored by third party groups, since it allows them to be present on the ballot and compete at least for the second preference of voters who might otherwise feel that they are “throwing their vote away”. The last big push was when Huron Valley Green Party raised the issue of IRV voting and attempted without success to get a measure on the ballot in 2004.  But Ann Arbor did once vote by IRV.  According to one account, Albert Wheeler was elected Mayor of Ann Arbor in 1975 on an IRV ballot. IRV was approved by voters in November 1974 after Republican James Stephenson won with less than a majority of the vote because Human Rights Party and Democratic Party candidates split the remainder of the vote.  Wheeler, the Democratic candidate,  actually came in second on first-preference voting, but when votes for Human Rights Party candidate Carol Ernst were redistributed according to second preference, won by 121 votes out of 29, 501.   This was challenged by Stephenson, but was upheld.  Republicans then organized a petition drive and IRV voting was abolished in an April 1976 election.

But Ann Arbor’s election schedule was altered more recently.  Traditionally, City Council elections were held in April, and elections for higher office in November.  This was thought to favor Republicans, since these elections typically had a low turn-out and long-term voters were predominantly Republican.  (I remember helping with some of these campaigns in which we were obliged to slog through snow and mud in order to campaign from door to door. )  But Tom Wieder and Dave DeVarti, both still active partisan Democrats, and a UM student (John Pollack) organized a citizen petition drive in 1992 to move the city elections to November.  Wieder recalls that they circulated petitions during the March 1992 Democratic Presidential primary and successfully got the measure, called VINE (Voter Initiative for a November Election) on the November 1992 ballot, where he remembers that it passed with 58% of the vote.  The Democratic ward organizations (which still could put on a field campaign) carried brochures to doors all over the city.  (As the ward chair,  I helped organize the Second Ward to carry literature, helping to elect Bill Clinton as well as pass VINE.) The first November city council elections were held in 1993;  there is no mention of a primary election in August 1993 in council minutes.  As we have noted earlier,  the August primary is now when the major contests are being held.

The “off-year” elections (held in odd-numbered years) are often decided by relatively small numbers of voters.  This has been an advantage to challengers.  Since only informed and motivated voters are likely to turn out in a odd-year August primary, the key for any candidate is to reach his or her voters and get them out.  In elections with a larger turnout, the candidate’s job is different; it is necessary to convince the broad population of voters, many of whom may not be paying much attention to a local race.  This happened with the November 2009 election, when the WISD millage was on the ballot.  It is instructive to note that Elhady’s margin of  loss  was lower on absentee ballots than in most precincts (his campaign sent out letters to absentee voters).  His strong campaign was doubtless overwhelmed by the many voters who simply voted for the experienced incumbent and long-term community member without having followed every moment of the campaign.

Much of the recent impetus toward some change in election schedules has been the perceived need to include students. Elhady was clearly gambling that student turnout really could make a difference in a November election.  Students presumably would not have been motivated by the millage vote but might be induced to turn out to elect a fellow student.  The Michigan Daily did endorse Elhady, and he conducted a vigorous student campaign (pizza and registration drives) in addition to his campaign aimed at residents.  But in the end, the student precinct 4-1 did not even give him a majority of its few votes.  The Independent label may have hurt him; there was criticism and puzzlement expressed about this issue on Arbor Update. (Post-election, Elhady admits that he will now be active in local Democratic party races.)

So, for better or worse, it looks as though the August primary is still going to be the important contest.  Unless we follow Kestenbaum’s thinking: “These days, I am leaning reluctantly toward nonpartisan city council elections rather than IRV.  That would move the main decision point to November without requiring special arrangements or changes to election procedures.”  Wieder, who has opposed non-partisan elections in the past, says he would now have less objection.  But would that ensure greater student participation? “The students aren’t going to vote in an odd year local election.  In the even years you would have a greater participation by students but it would be hard to get much traction or visibility on local candidates.”

Would Higgins have met the same fate that Leigh Greden did if Elhady had run against her in the Democratic primary instead?  We’ll never know.  But he gave the hypothesis of the need for more student participation in local elections a fair test.  Not that it will keep the subject from coming up again.

§ Yes, I liked Battlestar Galactica too but the recurrent history theme is not original with it.

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