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Lansing Voters May Not Weigh In On Ranked Choice Voting After All

I voted stickers
Scott Pohl

Updated July 28, 4 p.m. ET

The Lansing City Council may pull a question from November’s ballot asking voters whether they want to change local elections to a new system.

Council members agreed this month to let residents decideon switching to ranked choice voting. Under that system, voters rank candidates in order of preference.

But the council reversed its earlier decision on Monday because of concerns about legality.

Michigan’s Elections Director Jonathan Brater sent the city a letter, saying state law would need to be amended to allow ranked choice voting.

Ingham Clerk Barb Byrum voiced objections as well. She runs elections countywide and said Michigan hasn’t certified equipment that will work for ranked choice voting.

“Doing this at the local level is not the way to do this,” she said. “Because, one, we don't have the election technology at this time. And, two, the Michigan election law does not contemplate rank choice voting.”

Leaders of the advocacy group Rank MI Vote disagree with that interpretation. They say ranked choice voting is legal because home rule cities like Lansing have broad authority to run elections.

"I'm confident this will get on the ballot," Jim Lancaster, Rank MI Vote's legal advisor, said. 

Council members have until Aug. 10 to make a final decision about the Nov. 2 ballot. They’ve requested an analysis from City Attorney Jim Smierkta, who says the issue may not be clear-cut because case law is nonexistent.

“This is in its infancy stage as legality is concerned,” Smiertka said. “We’re going to do our best."

Ranked choice supporters say it gives voters more options and encourages campaigning based on consensus rather than division. Critics say the system is confusing and that it undermines the principle of one person, one vote.

Eastpointe is the only Michigan city using ranked choice voting. It adopted the system in 2019 to settle a civil rights lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice. The suit argued Eastpointe’s winner-take-all election system diluted the power of Black voters in at-large City Council races.

In 2004, Ferndale voters authorized changing the city’s charter to ranked choice voting, but the metro Detroit community has yet to implement ranked choice elections. 

Sarah Lehr is a state government reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio.
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