A democratic case against voting? The case of one Michigan city’s mayoral race

Voters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, will have a somewhat unusual choice on Nov. 6.

If they participate in the mayoral election, their vote won’t affect the election outcome—because only one candidate is eligible be elected.

But under the city charter, each voter who chooses to participate in the mayoral election, will have an incremental negative impact on potential direct democracy efforts in the city for at least the next four years.

The number of petition signatures required to put an ordinance on the ballot for a popular vote is tied to a percentage of votes in the most recent mayoral election. That means the mayoral election could be analyzed as a kind of referendum about the required number of petition signatures for citizen-initiated ordinances.

Currently, the thresholds seem a little counterintuitive: The number of petition signatures it takes to put a city ordinance on the ballot works out to about twice the number required for a city charter amendment. (The city council cannot itself change a charter amendment, including one added by citizen initiative. But even in the first two years after a citizen-initiated ordinance is approved, the city council can change it with an 8-vote majority on the 11-member council.)


The mayoral race in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is not contested this year. The only candidate on the ballot is incumbent Democrat Christopher Taylor. No official write-in candidates have registered, according to the latest Washtenaw County clerk’s office list. So even if someone writes in a name on the space provided, it will not count as a vote in the mayor’s race.

That means if Taylor gets even one vote on Tuesday, he’ll be elected mayor of the city for the next four years. (City voters in 2016 approved a change from two-year to four-year terms for the mayor, elected in even-years—which coincide with gubernatorial, not presidential elections.)

It’s reasonable to think that Taylor will vote for himself. Taylor’s vote for himself would guarantee an absolute majority of votes among eligible candidates, ensuring an election victory. So no one else’s vote besides Taylor’s will affect the outcome.

Threshold for citizen-initiated ordinances

Even if ballots cast for Christopher Taylor won’t affect the outcome of the mayoral election, they will have an effect on the required number of signatures on petitions for citizen-initiated ordinances. Each ballot cast in the mayor’s race will increase the petition requirement by two-tenths of a signature. From the city charter:

SECTION 7.10. Voters may propose ordinances by initiative petitions. If the
initiative petitions are in the form required by this section and contain signatures of
registered voters of a number not less than 20% of all the votes cast for the office of Mayor at the most recent mayoral election, the question of approval of the ordinance shall be submitted to the voters in the next city election which is at least 90 days after the filing of the petitions.

Recent mayoral elections have drawn participation from around 50,000 voters. That means the 20-percent threshold to place citizen-initiated ordinances on the ballot has been around 10,000 signatures.

It’s about twice as many as the roughly 5,000 signatures that are required to place a charter amendment on the ballot. The roughly 5,000 signatures for a charter amendment depend on a threshold defined in a different way—5-percent of the number of registered voters in the city. This year, for the first time in a couple of decades, a charter amendment was successfully initiated by petition. (It’s about maintaining under public control the parcel atop an underground parking garage.)

Factors that might affect 2018 participation

The choice this year—to participate in the mayoral election, and the negative impact of that participation on future direct democracy—is the same as in 2016.  In 2016, Christopher Taylor’s name was the only one to appear on the ballot, and no write-in candidates registered.

Two factors might affect levels of participation in the mayoral race this year compared to last, but probably not by much.

First, a court case earlier in the year had the effect of disallowing straight-party ticket voting in Michigan elections. In 2016, the total vote count was Taylor’s, and he received 48,785 votes. But straight-ticket voting for the Democratic Party in Ann Arbor totaled 24,134 in 2016. So a reasonable estimate might be that half of the votes in the mayoral election came from straight-ticket voters.

It’s reasonable to assume that the elimination of straight-ticket voting will have a negative impact on participation in many down-ballot races, including the mayoral race. But it’s hard to imagine the impact will be anywhere near a 50-percent decrease. For voters who would have voted straight-ticket Democrat, it’s a straightforward exercise to scan for “D’s” on the ballot and fill in the oval for that candidate.

Second, this year is not a presidential election year like 2016. Participation could be expected to be a bit less in a non-presidential election year, all other things being equal, What’s not equal in 2018 is the renewed enthusiasm that the Democratic and Republican parties alike have claimed as a result of  President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Early voting numbers in states that allow it are ahead of figures for 2016.

Thresholds for direct democracy

Absent some kind of publicity campaign urging voters to go to the polls to vote in other races, but not the mayoral election, it’s probably unlikely the mayoral participation numbers will show much of a drop. They might even increase.

It’s an odd sort of campaign to contemplate: Please vote, but not in that race, because of…the possibility of easier direct democracy!

Why is the threshold for petitions to put an ordinance on the ballot so much higher than the threshold for charter amendments?

The citywide election in 1985 offers some insight. That year, voters put a law on the books about the basic winterization of rental housing. That might be the only time a citizen-initiated ordinance has ever been placed on the ballot. The city charter was amended in 1984 to allow for such referenda on ordinances.

The petition signature requirement in 1985 would have been based on participation in the 1983 mayoral election, which was 23,204 total votes. That works out to 4,641 petition signatures, which is in the same ballpark as the number required for charter amendment petitions nowadays.

The number of petitions required for citizen-initiated ordinances  seems to have been calibrated to typical voter turnout for the election calendar of that era. The calendar back then placed mayoral elections in April of odd-numbered years. When the transition was made to fall city elections in 1994, mayoral elections were changed to even-numbered years.

Of course, fall mayoral elections meant greater numerical participation. An artifact of that greater numerical participation was a significantly higher petition signature threshold for citizen-initiated ordinances.

Changing the petition signature threshold for citizen-initiated ordinances would require an amendment of the city charter. That could be achieved through a citizen-initiative, where the number of signatures required is 5 percent of registered voters. Or the next edition of the city council, which will take office on Monday, Nov. 12, could vote at some point to place a charter question on the ballot.

It’s not obvious that a charter question lowering the threshold for citizen-initiated ordinances would pass. It’s a mechanism that has perhaps become a vestige of a different time.

The new council could decide to convene a charter commission, which could conduct a broad review of the document and recommend revisions to the charter for a vote. It’s possible to consider a revision that repeals the section for citizen-initiated ordinances.

Some Michigan cities have considered the question of convening a charter commission on a somewhat regular basis. Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor’s neighbor to the east, is one of them. In Ann Arbor, a charter commission has not been convened since the city charter was first adopted 62 years ago.









One thought on “A democratic case against voting? The case of one Michigan city’s mayoral race

  1. You are making an interesting point. Most of us don’t think about the “side effects” like the number of signatures required on a future petition. (I think interest in this election is high, but not because of the mayoral race, which is over.)

    Reminder that Michigan has outlawed the use of a single checkmark for a “straight ballot” this year. So Taylor will only get the number of votes that people actually designate. Before, the straight ballot would have meant an automatic vote for many Dems.


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