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Ranked-choice voting proposals gain traction across Michigan ahead of local elections

Tim Evanson

On Election Day this Tuesday, residents in three Michigan cities are making a decision on whether to adopt ranked-choice ballots.

Instead of selecting just one candidate, ranked-choice voting is a system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference. To win an election, a candidate has to be ranked in first place on most ballots.

But if that doesn’t happen, the loser of the first round has their ballots redistributed. If that candidate was listed in first place on a ballot, then the second-place candidate gets the vote in the next round. That process continues until one candidate has the most votes.

"State law would need to change because the way it is written currently doesn't accommodate rank choice voting."

This upcoming election, East Lansing, Royal Oak, and Kalamazoo will be considering ballot proposals in favor of ranked choice voting.

“When you do a multi-winner, rank-choice election, you get much closer to proportional representation in your community,” said Ron Zimmerman, executive director for Rank MI Vote, a group campaigning for the electoral reform.

Zimmerman views ranked-choice voting as a more democratic approach to elections because it doesn’t force voters to choose between just two options like they do in many elections.

Proposals like the one in East Lansing, which would bring ranked-choice voting to the City Council, has some local election officials concerned. Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum is worried about potential delays the system may cause in providing election results.

Ron Zimmerman
Ron Zimmerman
Rank MI Vote Executive Director Ron Zimmerman

“What I have found is that the longer it takes for unofficial results to be posted, the more time is afforded to election conspiracies,” Byrum said.

Byrum said implementing ranked-choice voting in East Lansing would require additional resources and training for her staff, placing a financial burden on taxpayers.

“I may have to get an entirely new system separate from the current election system that I have for the rest of the county to conduct such an election for East Lansing,” she explained.

According to a 2021 assessment from the Ranked Choice Voting Resource Center, Michigan has the voting systems in place to conduct a ranked choice election.

In 2004, Ferndale approved a charter amendment to allow for ranked-choice voting in mayoral and city council elections. A similar measure was approved by voters in Ann Arbor in 2021.

Currently, elections in those cities have remained unchanged because state election law does not allow for ranked-choice voting in any jurisdiction.

“What that means is whether or not it is passed by municipalities, that state law would need to change because the way it is written currently doesn't accommodate rank choice voting,” said Cheri Hardmon, senior press secretary for the Michigan Department of State.

Eastpointe is the only jurisdiction in Michigan to use a ranked-choice voting system for its city council elections.

In 2019, the city reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice following a federal lawsuit over alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act. Despite Black residents making up nearly 40% of Eastpointe’s population, a Black candidate had never won a local election.

Joseph Anthony
Joseph Anthony
Joseph Anthony is an assistant professor of political science at SUNY-Cortland

As part of the settlement, Eastpointe adopted ranked-choice voting. Later that year, the city elected its first Black mayor under the new electoral system.

There’s a growing number of cities and towns across the country adopting ranked-choice voting. Alaska and Maine have implemented the process for presidential races.

A 2023 report from the nonpartisan group Unite America Institute found that Alaska voters are more likely to participate in primary elections than other states.

Joseph Anthony has been studying voter opinions on ranked choice voting over the last decade. The State University of New York professor said jurisdictions using ranked-choice voting often do so to solve problems with voter participation.

“The research shows that there might be some initial resistance to it simply because change is hard and more complicated because it's a new system, and people are really used to doing elections a certain way,” Anthony said.

Anthony believes education and awareness is critical when it comes to shifting perspectives on traditional elections to ranked-choice systems.

Michigan State Representative Regina Weiss
Regina Weiss
Michigan State Representative Regina Weiss

“We've also found that when election officials and divisions and organizations make concerted efforts to reach out to the public, for instance, mailing sample ballots ahead of the election really informing voters about what to do, that voter confusion can really be mitigated,” Anthony added.

State Rep. Regina Weis (D-Oakland) is preparing legislation to amend Michigan election law to make room for ranked-choice voting in the state.

“We just simply wanted to make it so that if local communities decided for municipal elections to use a ranked-choice system, that they're able to do so under state law,” Weis said.

As Election Day approaches, it will be up to East Lansing, Royal Oak and Kalamazoo to decide whether they want to join the efforts of Ann Arbor and Ferndale in adding local pressure to encourage the state to make ranked-choice voting an option in Michigan.

Rank MI Vote is actively working to expand their outreach and encourage additional cities to include similar proposals on their ballots for the 2024 elections. Zimmerman explained that their strategy involves building substantial momentum and garnering support from the broader Michigan community to pave the way for statewide ballot initiatives in support of ranked choice voting.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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