A pandemic changes everything–including voting patterns.
Absentee ballots made up three-quarters of the votes cast in the August primary, and of those, 40 percent were cast more than two weeks before the election, a trend local officials expect to be even more pronounced in the November 3 general election. To reach those early voters, the Observer has moved up our election coverage a month.
We won’t revisit the city council race since the winners of the Democratic primaries are unopposed. And though five Republicans are running for the city’s seats on the county board of commissioners, and two for the state house of representatives, none is likely to win in heavily Democratic Ann Arbor–especially with the presidential election boosting turnout.
One important race could still go either way: the nonpartisan contest for circuit court judge. Amy Reiser finished third in August’s primary and was eliminated, narrowing the general election to Nick Roumel and Tracy Van den Bergh (Inside Ann Arbor, August, Calls & Letters correction, September). The outcome may depend on which way Reiser’s supporters turn.
“My jaw dropped,” says Chuck Warpehoski. “Like, absolutely dropped.”
That’s how the Ann Arbor Community Foundation board member reacted when he learned that in a July poll, 77 percent of the voters said they’d support an affordable housing millage in November.
The former city councilmember’s jaw wasn’t the only one to drop. When work on a housing millage started last fall, he remembers telling folks that “2020 might be our best shot because of progressive voter turnout” for the presidential election. But “then Covid hit. I thought we were dead.”
The last effort to pass a housing millage, in 2008, ended with the Great Recession. Many thought the pandemic made it even less likely now. But then, Warpehoski says, Amanda Carlisle and Aubrey Patino, executive directors respectively of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance and Avalon Housing, warned that the city was “looking at a 40 percent increase in homelessness” due to Covid-19.
Carlisle and Patino suggested the poll, got a $14,000 Community Foundation grant to pay for it, and hired Lansing public research firm EPIC-MRA to conduct it. “We felt like it would be incredibly valuable to have a sense of public perception,” says Carlisle. “We gave them the proposed ballot language. They came up with many of the questions.”
With the poll to show “that this was viable at the ballot box,” Warpehoski says, supporters reached out to city council about putting it before voters. Seeing housing as a “bipartisan issue,” they sought out sponsors from both council factions: Elizabeth Nelson from the “Back to Basics Caucus” and Chip Smith from the “Activist Coalition.” (These are the Observer’s names; the factions have no formal structure.)
Warpehoski says they chose Smith because his November retirement from council made him less threatening, and Nelson was picked because WCC board member and millage supporter Dave DeVarti had a “really good relationship” with her.
Smith says that when he first ran for council, in 2013, he was told that “affordable housing is not a winning campaign issue. [But] what I saw knocking doors between 2015 and 2020 was a sea change in how people think about housing … The problem has gotten so much worse.”
Mayor Christopher Taylor puts a number on it. Washtenaw County “is the eighth most economically segregated community in the country, and we’re getting worse,” he says. “If we don’t act now decisively, that great divide will be permanent.” In July, council voted unanimously to put the millage request on the ballot.
Ann Arbor Proposal C calls for a twenty-year, one-mill tax that will generate about $6.5 million annually for an approximate total of $126 million. If passed, it would increase taxes by $100 annually for every $100,000 in taxable value and support the development of about 1,500 housing units for up to 3,700 people.
It’s a solid start. “We have over 5,000 folks experiencing homelessness every year,” says Carlisle, “but that doesn’t include the folks who are living on the edge and precariously housed.”
Redeveloping city-owned properties for housing is key part to the plan. “The City has adopted multiple strategies to increase the supply of affordable housing over the last thirty years including zoning incentives, developer contributions, general fund support, property tax reductions, and partial fee waivers,” emails Ann Arbor Housing Commission executive director Jennifer Hall. “These strategies have hardly made a ripple in the marketplace.”
The 1,500 units “would be for folks living at up to 60 percent of area median income,” Patino says. The remaining “375 would be dedicated supportive housing targeting folks at or below 30 percent of area median income.”
“The primary goal of all services provided is to prevent evictions and increase the housing stability of at-risk tenants,” writes Hall. “Tenant supports are focused first on helping them maintain a stable housing situation, and then on improving their quality of life. Supportive housing services are highly individualized and flexible, free and not time limited.”
And extensive: topping a partial list of more than twenty services are case management, mental health support, medical care, substance abuse recovery support, domestic violence, and conflict resolution.
Funds also are being raised privately for an endowment to pay for those services. The long-term goal, emails Lauren Wisniewski of the Sister Yvonne Gellise Fund, is to have the $60 million endowment in place by the time the millage expires.
If the millage passes, Patino says it will make “a serious dent” in homelessness. Carlisle believes the city can eventually eliminate it entirely. “We are very close with veterans, and if we can do it with veterans, we can do it with any population.”
“There will always be people who are housing-insecure,” Carlisle concludes. “But the idea is that [to] make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring, [and] with that permanent housing, I think we can do it.”
Given the pandemic and an economic crisis, will the millage pass? “If Ann Arbor is the compassionate community we say we are, this is the time we need to step up,” says Warpehoski.
“I don’t know that I have that sort of faith in the Ann Arbor electorate,” Smith says dubiously. “I need to see it to believe it.” But if they do approve it, he says, the first 130 units of affordable housing, plus 288 market-rate units, could be ready on the former YMCA lot within three years.
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The city also has two sidewalk taxes on the ballot, and the county is requesting renewal of its natural features millage.
The biggest tax measure on the ballot by far is Ann Arbor Proposal A, which would renew and restore the city’s street, bridge, and sidewalk repair millage. If approved, the four-year, 2.125-mill tax would raise an estimated $13.9 million the first year. Ann Arbor Proposal B would add a new 0.20-mill tax dedicated to filling sidewalks gaps; it would raise an estimated $1.3 million the first year. If both are approved, they’ll cost homeowners $232 for every $100,000 in taxable value.
Washtenaw County Proposal 1 would renew and restore a 0.25-mill natural features tax for ten years. If approved, it would generate an estimated $4.4 million the first year to purchase and preserve natural areas.
Seven people are running for school board. Five are critics of the superintendent.
In educational administration, money can’t buy you love. The Ann Arbor school board learned that the hard way in 2013, when superintendent Pat Green quit halfway into a five-year contract, despite a district-record salary.
Jeanice Swift took the job for $45,000 less, and quickly turned the district around. With new programs like STEAM at Northside and the International Baccalaureate (IB) at Mitchell, Scarlett, and Huron, she won back district students from private and charter schools, and drew more from other districts through a “schools of choice” program. Enrollment is up 9 percent since her arrival, bringing in more state aid, and last year, voters approved a $1 billion bond to renew the district’s buildings. In June, the board extended Swift’s contract for five more years.
But the superintendent has clashed with the local teacher’s union over everything from state-mandated contract changes to the way the IB program was implemented. Since 2016, candidates backed by the Ann Arbor Education Association have replaced four trustees who supported Swift in those disputes. This year, three board seats are up–and five of the seven candidates criticize Swift’s contract extension.
“I was not happy,” says retired Ann Arbor Open teacher Jeff Gaynor, sixty-nine, the only current board member running and the only one to vote against the extension. “I would not structure the contract the way it was.”
“I definitely don’t like the way that it was done,” says Ann Arbor Open parent Ernesto Querijero, forty-four. “I would have entertained extending her contract, but not one that is five years long.” Fellow Ann Arbor Open parent Angie Smith, also forty-four, says she was “surprised that the public didn’t know that that was going to happen ahead of time.”
Swift crossed Open school parents by opposing their campaign to boycott state-mandated tests, but two candidates with ties to Pioneer High also are critics.
John Spisak, fifty-five, says he is “not a big fan” of Swift’s. Maggi Richards Kennel, forty-four, writes that the board should have dismissed the superintendent because “she has been job shopping for the last couple of years.” (Swift tried for the top job in Seattle in 2018 and was a finalist for Michigan superintendent of schools last year.)
Thurston parent Krystle DuPree, thirty-five, is one of two candidates supporting the extension. She says that as the schools struggle to adapt to the pandemic, “having consistent leadership is actually benefiting us.”
“I know that a lot of people don’t like Swift,” says Skyline parent Jamila James, forty-four. “But [I think] she’s done a decent job.”
Asked what they’d do differently, most of the candidates point to a single issue: growing enrollment through schools of choice.
Only James doesn’t have a position on accepting students from other districts, emailing that “I have to have more information on that.” The other candidates are divided mainly over whether it’s a necessary evil–or just evil.
Though Gaynor is often a minority of one in school board votes, he writes that “the vote that stands out” for him was on schools of choice. “Last year AAPS enrolled nearly 2,000 students from neighboring districts; over 1,000 were from the Ypsilanti Community Schools. While these students benefit AAPS financially [it] has a much more detrimental effect on YCS.”
Kennel emails that “we should not grow our district at the expense of other districts. This will only lead to increased disparities across the county, creating greater educational gaps.”
“When our state leads all others in cuts to school funding, out-of-district transfers create a competition among schools that can be damaging,” notes Smith.
Querijero agrees that schools of choice “pulls resources from other communities.” He nevertheless supports it because “there [aren’t] a whole lot of ways for us to generate more money.”
“If we have open seats, we should make those available,” Spisak writes. “I don’t think that we should be actively marketing to take students from other school districts.”
“I am not in favor of School of Choice,” writes DuPree. “I realize that our district needs adequate funding to support its learners. But attaining this funding by balancing our needs over those of neighboring districts is a bad position to be in.”
The Ann Arbor Education Association and the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation are backing Gaynor, Smith, and Querijero. The Washtenaw County Democratic Party has endorsed Gaynor, Querijero, and DuPree, with Smith coming in fourth by a few votes.
How to Vote
And how to make sure it’s counted
According to the Washington Post, “six in 10 registered voters nationwide say they want to cast their ballots before Election Day.” Ed Golembiewski, Washtenaw County’s chief deputy clerk and director of elections, reckons it’ll be much higher here: “Voters are going to be encouraged by the [Secretary of State], the county, their local clerk, the media, political parties, candidates—truly everyone under the sun—to vote and return their ballot as soon as possible after they receive it,” he emails.
To facilitate absentee voting, the state mailed applications to every registered voter. Voters can also request an absentee ballot online until October 30. Ballots will be mailed out beginning September 24.
Ballots can be returned by mail or other courier service, but in the final seven days before the election, the city recommends using the dedicated drop boxes in city hall’s north and south vestibules, which are accessible 24/7. Additional drop boxes will be provided before election day; for information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call (734) 794–6140, or check the clerk’s webpage—go to a2gov.org and search for “elections.”
In addition to making it easier to vote absentee, new rules passed in 2018 allow voters to register as late as Election Day, either at the clerk’s office in city hall or a temporary satellite office at the U-M Museum of Art. Registrants can request an absentee ballot and vote it immediately.
If you vote early and later change your mind before the election, you can “spoil” the first ballot by submitting a written request to the city clerk. Mailed requests must be received no later than 2 p.m. the Saturday before the election (Oct. 31); an absentee ballot may be spoiled in person at the clerk’s office until 4 p.m. the day before the election (Nov. 2). There is no option on Election Day to spoil an absentee ballot that has been received by the clerk.
Want to be sure your ballot is received? Check the Michigan Secretary of State voter information page online at mvic.sos.state.mi.us/Voter/Index.
It’s still possible to vote in person! If you don’t know your polling place, contact the clerk’s office, or search online for “Ann Arbor polling places.”
This article has been edited since it was published in the October 2020 Ann Arbor Observer. Krystle DuPree’s position on schools of choice has been corrected.