A new FairVote report examines the history of ranked choice voting in Ann Arbor, Michigan -- a story that begins with the ascent of a wild force in Ann Arbor politics: the Human Rights Party (HRP). Founded by a collection of college students and activists, HRP emerged as a leftist alternative to the major parties.
It’s also the story of an election night as dramatic as any, a contest decided by a handful of votes that elected the city’s first (and, to date, only) black mayor.
Two pivotal events thrust the party onto the scene. First was the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which lowered the voting age to 18. The second was a decision by the Michigan Supreme Court that struck down restrictions on students trying to register to vote in their college towns.
This empowered students and set the stage for HRP’s first victory: winning two seats in the 1972 city council elections. The balance of power in city government shifted overnight. Unless Democrats and Republicans could join together, they would need HRP’s approval since no party held a majority.
The Path to RCV
The beginning of the campaign for ranked choice voting can be traced to the 1973 mayoral election. That contest was a classic case of a split vote, which handed the election to Republican James Stephenson without a majority.
Local coverage depicted the HRP candidate as having “acted out the role of spoiler.” HRP realized its current position threatened to give Republicans an even stronger majority. The next year, planning began for an RCV initiative and the Democrats endorsed it.
That November, voters came to the polls in record numbers to pass ranked choice voting, 53 to 47 percent. In the upcoming mayoral election, Ann Arbor voters would rank their choices for the first time.
Three candidates ran for mayor in 1975: Stephenson, the incumbent, sought re-election for the Republicans, Democrats ran civil rights activist Albert Wheeler, and HRP ran bus dispatcher Carol Ernst.
Two major questions arose. First: would Stephenson be able to secure a majority of first choice votes? An HRP-Democrat coalition could give Wheeler the win. Second: would HRP voters rank Wheeler second? After all, HRP had denounced the two major parties as obstacles to radical change.
On April 7, 1975, Ann Arbor voters finally went to the polls.
The final results were astonishing: Wheeler pulled off a come-from-behind victory after Stephenson earned 49 percent in the first round. He did it by earning almost 90 percent of HRP voters’ second choices. Wheeler won by a margin of just 0.4 percent, becoming the city’s first black mayor.
Immediately after election night, RCV came under fire from the press and local Republicans. On April 13, the Ann Arbor News complained that the system gave HRP “disproportionate power.” Republicans launched a two-front attack on RCV: through litigation and a repeal initiative.
Stephenson filed suit in court, disputing the constitutionality of RCV. But in November 1975, a judge affirmed RCV’s legality, praising its “involvement of a greater base of voters” and ability to provide “greater voice in government by minorities.”
In the push for repeal, Republicans emphasized the costliness of using paper ballots and depicted the system as confusing. Even though a City Hall report found that voters did not have trouble with ranked ballots, the tangle of litigation from 1975 likely weighed on voters’ minds.
On April 5, 1976, the voters spoke. Just one year after its adoption, Ann Arbor repealed RCV by a decisive 62-38 margin.
The Daily blamed confusion from 1975 as the leading cause of repeal, but the pitiful turnout (just 27 percent) was more telling. Students didn’t show up like they had in the past. The party’s support was dwindling; saving the reform may not have seemed worth it.
Lessons for Reformers
1. Partisanship is a double-edged sword on the path to electoral reform.
Reformers must recognize that appetite for RCV is dependent on who is winning under the system, as was true in Ann Arbor. While a major party may be friendly to reform one year, it could easily mobilize repeal the next. It is therefore crucial that reformers emphasize the core principles behind RCV rather than particular results it will produce. The system’s power is its ability to provide more choices and better reflect society’s diversity—not elect Democrats.
2. RCV’s longevity relies on more than two factions existing and contesting elections.
Whether it be Ann Arbor in 1973 or Maine in 2014, a split vote can open the door for RCV. So long as a faction outside the two major parties is competitive, it can team up with the second largest party to enact RCV. Both stand to gain.
But if this alternative option grows weak or disorganized, there is an opening to roll back RCV. The largest party can successfully repeal if it suspects the opposition may fail to unify. Therefore, a stable balance of three or more parties can help ensure RCV’s long-term existence.
Read the report here.