The Second Ward Democrat says that’s why he plans to propose changes to city elections this month. “We started talking about election reform leading into the mayor’s race last summer,” recalls Ward Five’s Chuck Warpehoski. “An election like that has dangers. [With four candidates running] I was worried about a 30-25-25-20 election where whoever won the primary would not have a strong mandate. As it turned out, the mayor came through with a strong mandate. But it could have been a really ugly splintering of the community.”

“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” agrees former city attorney Bruce Laidlaw. With Democrats holding ten of the eleven seats on council, the August Democratic primary “has become the time when most people get elected, and yet it has the lowest turnout.” In 2013, about 25 percent fewer people voted in August’s council primaries than those who cast votes for councilmembers in the largely meaningless November general election. In 2014, when state and federal races shared the ballot, the difference was more like two-thirds: 7,451 fewer people voted in August than in November. And 50,249 people voted for mayor in November 2012, a presidential election year–but just 33,279 showed up in 2014.

A longtime election reform advocate, Laidlaw points to the current system’s other disadvantages. “When there’s a change of council in August, there’s a very long lame duck session” before the winners take office after the November general election.”

Ann Arbor held municipal elections in April until a 1992 city charter amendment moved them to November. It would take another charter amendment to make them nonpartisan–and that would require a public vote.

The intent of the 1992 change was to increase voter participation, but the opposite happened after Democrats came to dominate the town a decade ago. Before the change, 20 percent of the electorate was a typical April turnout. Now only about 10 percent vote in August.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t in town in August,” notes Warpehoski. “They’re on vacation, or if they’re connected to the universities or the schools they’re out of town.” That includes the majority of U-M students.

“Some people might think it’s a good thing to not have students involved in local government,” says Warpehoski. “I see students as a stable constituency that’s not well represented. I don’t think it would be a sea change [if more students voted], but it would be a change.”

Warpehoski acknowledges the current system’s advantages. “The people who turn out in August tend to know what they’re voting for. They tend to be the committed voters, and they’re more likely to do their research. If the meaningful election was put on the November ballot, we’d have the danger that the people are there to vote for the president and may not be paying attention to the local races.” And, he adds, “it’s easier for a small-dollar campaign to be successful when the voter pool is small. Steve Kunselman wins election even when he’s been outspent because he’s got a committed volunteer base and name recognition.”

Christopher Taylor, who defeated three other Democrats last August and an independent in November, says he doesn’t “mind the August election. The August election is focused on local government. If the race were in November then the focus on Ann Arbor would be diluted overwhelmingly.”

The mayor nevertheless admits another of the current system’s disadvantages. “With half the council up every year, at least half the council is very focused on the next election.” This leaves Ann Arbor in almost perpetual election season, with half the council wondering if the other half will be there after the next election.

In May, Westphal was still developing his proposal, but he’ll definitely be proposing to move elections to November–which also means nonpartisan elections.

“The advantage is that it’s Election Day and everybody knows it,” says Westphal. “The potential disadvantage is you remove the partisan label. There is a falloff on the nonpartisan section of the ballot. Some people don’t see the relevance of judges and local council.”

Another option, Warpehoski says, is “going to even-year elections.” That would save about $50,000 now spent on odd-year votes and could also eliminate the marked contrast in councilmembers elected in odd and even years. “We tend to get different candidates elected in low-turnout elections,” says Warpehoski. “We had several votes [at] Monday’s meeting where the even-year candidates voted one way and the odd-year candidates voted another.”

“I’ve heard people say if we line up every four years with the presidential elections, we risk a huge turnover,” adds Westphal. “If that happens, there’s a good reason, and we shouldn’t stifle the choice.”

Warpehoski has another concern. “Switching to November elections risks increasing the role of money,” he says. “The way to mitigate that is campaign finance reform, to something like the New York system where small donations are matched on a more than one-to-one level so average people can still have an impact on local elections and not just the people who can write thousand-dollar checks.”

Mayor Taylor has mixed feelings. “People talk about change, but I don’t hear a drive for it from people who are politically active,” he says. “Moving to four-year terms has more support. Moving away from partisan elections has less support.

“A conversation on staggered four-year terms is well worth pursuing. But I don’t support nonpartisan elections. There is benefit to the partisan affiliation. It’s a clean and accurate measure of political philosophy.”

But county clerk Larry Kestenbaum thinks the public may disagree. “Parties are unpopular,” he says. “People have gotten more partisan, and trust in the opposite party has gone down to nothing. You put something on the ballot saying ‘let’s get rid of parties,’ and people will get excited.”

If nonpartisan elections get on the ballot and win–both big ifs–Kestenbaum also has a prediction of what it’s likely to mean for local politics. “When you have nonpartisan elections, the electorate tends to cleave to the most obvious differences–probably pro-development and anti-development.”