Three localities voted to adopt ranked choice voting. But additional roadblocks remain. ⋆

Three cities in Michigan voted on Tuesday to move to a ranked choice voting system for local elections. But whether the proposals passed by voters will take effect remains uncertain. 

Voters in East Lansing, Kalamazoo and Royal Oak approved initiatives placed on the ballot by Rank MI Vote, a nonprofit organization modeled after Voters Not Politician, which previously led statewide ballot initiatives introducing Michigan’s independent redistricting commission in 2018 and expanding voting rights in 2022.

But the proposals acknowledge upcoming hurdles to their implementation, saying they will only take effect “in the event state law allows for the use of ranked choice voting … and voting machine equipment capable of implementing ranked choice voting is available and obtained by the city, and such equipment is approved by the city election commission.”

Is ranked-choice voting the next election reform for Michigan?

Under ranked choice voting, rather than voting for one candidate, voters would instead mark bubbles next to multiple candidates indicating their order of preference. Candidates would need at least 50% of first choice votes to win. If no candidate reaches that threshold, an instant runoff would be triggered; the candidate with the fewest first choice votes would be eliminated, and those ballots would be allocated to their respective second choice votes. That process continues until a candidate has at least 50% support.

Another Michigan city, Ferndale, approved ranked choice voting as far back as 2004, but the proposal was never implemented after the state Bureau of Elections questioned the constitutionality of such a form of voting. Ann Arbor voters passed a similar measure in 2021.

Rank MI Vote argues that ranked choice voting would be allowed under Michigan’s Home Rule City Act, which says cities can determine the methods used for electing local officials.

Pat Zabawa, a member of Rank MI Vote’s board of directors, said that after filing a FOIA request for documents in a previous court case, they found that lawyers at the Board of State Canvassers “did seem to express that it was legal in the state of Michigan at the time.”

“Our stance is that no legislation is required, but that the state Bureau of Elections is currently empowered to approve the certification process necessary to carry out ranked choice voting,” Zabawa said.

While Zabawa said Rank MI Vote will have to regroup to determine next steps, they hope that by passing measures in three additional cities it will put pressure on the Bureau of Elections to take up the issue.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said she has “a litany of concerns” about the possibility of certain localities, such as East Lansing, potentially moving to a ranked choice voting system, including that “certainly, it is not permitted under law right now in the state of Michigan.”

Byrum said she worries about delays in posting results creating opportunities for disinformation, voter confusion – especially in a college town – and whether current election equipment can be programmed to handle ranked choice ballots. 

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum at a press conference announcing Democrats’ voting rights bill package, Nov. 3, 2021, at the Ingham County Courthouse | Laina G. Stebbins

Additionally, Byrum said that election administrators are already trying to implement Voters Not Politicians’ proposal from 2022 and other election law changes from the Michigan Legislature.

“This is certainly not the time to start a different style of voting in Michigan, as voters are just now going to have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote in different ways, whether it be nine days early voting, or absentee voting or in person,” Byrum said.

If the state were going to allow ranked choice voting, though, Byrum said it would make more sense at a statewide level rather than making carveouts for individual localities. 

“When the changes are at the local level, the county clerk still has to be prepared to program as well,” Byrum said. “It’s not a simple pass it in each jurisdiction, it should be statewide.”

State Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Twp.), a former secretary of state who is the minority chair of the Senate Election Committee, similarly said that while she would not be supportive of allowing a ranked choice voting system, it would need to be statewide if it were to happen.

“Anytime you do things differently, you’re going to have a dropoff of people that can understand that difference,” Johnson said. “I remember when we used to vote in one place for a school district and vote in another place for anything else. Now they’re all in one place, which makes it so much easier. That uniformity makes it easier for people to vote.”

Johnson said Michigan currently has over 1,000 different ballot styles, with more than 1,500 local clerks, which she said is more than any other state. 

Sen. Ruth Johnson at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

“We do have local control, so we have more transparency and more accountability,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to trade that off. But for a system that in other places is not working well … at this point, uniformity is really important.”

After successfully passing proposals in three localities, Zabawa said Rank MI Vote aims to have a statewide proposal on the ballot in 2026.

“In the meantime, we thought we could engage in the topic, engage local communities, by running city charter amendments in various cities in Michigan.”



authored by Andrew Roth
First published at

Comments are closed.