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Ranked Choice Supporters Weigh Options After Lansing City Council Pulls Ballot Measure

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Reginald Hardwick

Backers of ranked choice voting in Lansing are reevaluating their options after the City Council declined to let voters decide in November's general election whether the city should adopt the alternate voting method.

The council approved ballot language on July 12asking voters if they wanted to switch future local elections to ranked choice voting, a system where voters rank candidates in order of preference. But the council ended up rescinding those ballot measures because of concerns about legality.

Jim DeLine, treasurer for Rank MI Vote, said the advocacy group could consider other avenues in Lansing, including getting enough signatures from city residents to bring ranked choice voting to the ballot without the council's approval.

Rank MI Vote filed paperwork with the Michigan Secretary of State at the end of July, indicating the group plans to raise money for ballot proposals advancing ranked choice voting across the state.

This month, Ann Arbor's City Council OK'd ballot language asking voters on Nov. 2 to decide on ranked choice voting. That language specifies, however, that ranked choice elections will not be implemented until the procedure is authorized by state law.

The Michigan Attorney General's office is reviewing Ann Arbor's ballot language, a department spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Lansing council members became uneasy after Michigan's Elections Director Jonathan Brater submitted a letter in late July saying ranked choice voting is not legal under Michigan law.

Lansing's city attorney agreed in a opinion provided to City Council Monday night. Assistant City Attorney Lisa Hagen told the council Michigan election law would need to be amended to allow ranked choice elections in Lansing, which was enough to torpedo any chance of RCV showing up this year on Lansing's Nov. 2 ballot.

The council voted on July 26 to"reconsider" its previous vote, which effectively undid its previous approval of ballot language.

Council members agreed Monday to take up further discussion of the matter, but the majority ultimately voted against approving language in time for Tuesday's deadline for submitting general election ballot questions.

Jim Lancaster, legal advisor to the advocacy group Rank MI Vote, disputed the city attorney's opinion. He told the council ranked choice voting is currently legal since home rule cities like Lansing have broad authority to run elections.

Eastpointe is the only Michigan city using ranked choice voting. It adopted the system in 2019 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit. The lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice argued Eastpointe's winner-take-all system diluted the power of Black voters in council elections.

Under ranked choice voting, the candidate with more than 50% of first-choice votes wins automatically. If no contender gets that majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and results are re-tallied until a candidate nets over 50% of first-choice votes.

Ranked choice proponents say the system gives voters more options and benefits diverse candidates. They say it encourages campaigning based on consensus rather than division, since vote splitting is less likely to penalize similar candidates.

"People really feel empowered when they can go into a voting booth and not just choose one, not just choose the lesser of two evils, but have several names on there that more closely reflect the kind of leadership they would like to see in government," DeLine said.

Critics say ranked choice is confusing and that it contradicts the principle of one person, one vote.

Lansing's ranked choice proposal, if approved, would have eliminated the city's nonpartisan primary election.

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