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DICKERSON: Mayoral runoff is a waste of Detroit's resources

• Aug 22, 2017 at 3:00 PM

To the surprise of no one who watched his seven challengers going through the motions of an utterly forgettable primary campaign, Mayor Mike Duggan won the lightly attended elimination round going away, capturing 67 percent of the vote.

Even if every voter who cast a ballot for one of Duggan's rivals (on Aug. 8) had united behind the second-place finisher, Coleman Young Jr., Duggan's margin would have been prohibitive — the most decisive since then-incumbent Mayor Dennis Archer won 82 percent of the vote in Detroit 1997's mayoral primary.

Incumbent City Clerk Janice Winfrey's margin was less overwhelming, but she also won an absolute majority of votes — 51 percent — in a crowded contest that left the runner-up, Garland Gilchrist II, with just 20 percent.

So why does Detroit cling to the absurd rule that gives distant second-place finishers a second shot at a popular candidate in November? What public interest is served by forcing Duggan (and Archer before him) to slog through another 90 days of campaigning?

The logic of a runoff following a multi-candidate primary in which no candidate garners an absolute majority — that is, more than 50 percent of all votes cast — is obvious. A candidate who wins first place in an eight-person race with, say, 37 percent of the vote could easily be defeated if most of the 63 percent who voted for someone else united behind the second-place finisher in the runoff election.

But the candidate who wins more than 50 percent of the vote in a crowded field, as Duggan did this month, is certain to beat any of his rivals in a one-on-one matchup unless (1) some of his supporters change their minds in the interval between the primary and the runoff, or (2) the general election attracts a swarm of new voters more hostile to the primary victor.

But although the voter turnout in a general election is typically 3-5 times larger than the primary turnout, the candidate who wins a supermajority in the first round seldom sees a significant loss of support from one contest to the next.

In 1997, for instance, more than twice the number of voters who participated in the lightly attended primary turned out for the general mayoral election two months later. But Archer's share of the total vote actually increased, from 82 percent in the primary to 83 percent in the general election.

In many other countries, states and municipalities where multiple candidates compete in preliminary elections for president, congress or other elected office, the law sensibly spares the victorious candidate who amasses an absolute majority — that is, more than 50 percent of all votes cast — from the time and expense of duplicating that feat in a runoff.

And nothing in Michigan election law precludes a municipality from adopting the same sensible rule.

In Grand Rapids, the state's second-largest city, candidates for nonpartisan office get to skip the November general election if they win an absolute majority in the primary. In the last four years, two candidates for city office — Rosalyn Bliss, who won a four-way mayoral primary in 2015, and Senita Lenear, who beat two rivals in a City Council primary two years earlier — were declared winners after amassing more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

Detroit had an opportunity to eliminate the superfluous runoff (in cases where one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the primary vote) when it last rewrote its charter six years ago. But Gregory Hicks, the executive director of the charter revision commission whose extensive rewrite Detroit voters adopted, says the issue never even came up in the commission's deliberations.

Former Mayor Archer said he was rebuffed when he proposed ending the superfluous runoff to a previous charter review commission after winning absolute majorities in both his mayoral primaries in 1993 and 1997.

"I thought it was unnecessary," he told me in a phone conversation. "I wanted to save the city some money."

Grand Rapids City Clerk Darlene O'Neal said her city's long-time practice of canceling runoffs when one primary candidate wins an absolute majority makes sense, but doubts that it saves the election department much money, since the elimination of one or two runoffs typically wouldn't preclude the need for (and the expenses associated with) a general election.

But eliminating unnecessary runoffs would mean that popular candidates like Duggan spend less time raising campaign funds and running for office and more time doing the jobs they were elected to do.

The only losers would be voters who can't be bothered to pay attention to local government, even in an election year, until their more engaged neighbors have narrowed the general election choices in a primary.

So, instead of getting on with the business of governing, Detroit's mayor will spend another three months campaigning for a second term two out of three Detroit voters are already ready to give him.

You may contact Brian Dickerson at the Detroit Free Press at bdickerson@freepress.com.

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