News Story

Having Won Once, Reformers Want Even-Year Grand Rapids Elections

One official says their lower turnout makes odd-year elections look like suppression

A citizen-led group in Grand Rapids is hoping to persuade the city commission to switch municipal elections from odd years to even ones.

Rina Baker and Bonnie Burke hope the efforts of their organization, Empower the Citizen, will convince city commissioners to move city council and mayoral elections to even-numbered years, when turnout tends to be higher.

If city commissioners aren’t interested, Baker said, she is willing to take the issue directly to the people by starting a ballot initiative campaign. In 2014, Baker led a successful effort to limit the city’s mayor and commissioners to two four-year terms.

“I would like to have the commission do the right thing,” Baker said. “Then if they don’t, we’ll press, press, press, and then if we have to, we’ll run a ballot initiative.”

Holding votes on dates that aren’t aligned with even-year congressional elections — such as Grand Rapids’ mayoral and city commissioner elections in November 2019 — are sometimes called “stealth elections.”

After reformers made several failed earlier attempts to streamline Michigan election dates, a comprehensive election consolidation law was enacted in 2003 by one of the first legislatures subject to term limits. It required nearly all elections in the state to be held on one of four days in the year, later reduced to one of three days: The first Tuesday after the first Monday in the months of May, August and November. But the reform did not say that all elections had to be in even-numbered years.

For Baker, the biggest reason to have elections then is to increase voter turnout.

According to election data she collected from Grand Rapids, voter participation in some areas was as much as 40 percentage points higher in 2016 than it was in 2017. For example, turnout in some precincts in the 3rd Ward, which covers much of the southern portion of the city, was 45.7 percent in 2016 but only 5.7 percent in 2017. Data from the 1st Ward, which covers the western side of the city, shows a nearly identical pattern.

Baker also said that holding the city elections on even years will save money.

Ruth Kelly, one of two commissioners from the 2nd Ward, said a couple of commissioners don’t think holding local elections on even years would be a good thing. Kelly said the commission should have time to research the potential pros and cons of the proposal.

“Switching to even-year elections does increase minority turnout,” Kelly said. “But it will cost more to get the word [about your campaign] out and you’d also be running in a partisan election time, making the election more partisan.”

Positions in the Grand Rapids local government are officially nonpartisan.

José Flores, who serves as a board member of Grand Rapids Public Schools, believes that holding elections on odd-numbered years is an effort by power brokers in the city to quietly suppress minority turnout at the polls.

“We need a city commission that reflects the community. We have a racial and an ethnic community that is currently being underserved,” Flores said.

Steve Guitar, Grand Rapids media relations manager, said the city commission has not officially taken up the election-year issue.

State Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, sponsored House Bill 4814 in 2017 to require all elections involving proposed property tax increases to be held in November. Albert said that’s when more people vote.

“Voter turnout is historically roughly 30 percent in August and 20 percent in May elections,” Albert said in a 2017 press release. “We should have a goal of maximum voter turnout when ballot questions impact a voter’s tax bill. Voter turnout is clearly highest during November elections.”