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Albert Wheeler, Ann Arbor's IRV mayor

February 2005

On April 7, 1975, the citizens of Ann Arbor, MI elected their first black mayor, Albert Wheeler, using instant runoff voting.

Only months before, on the November ’74 ballot, voters approved the use of IRV—called “preference voting” in statutory language. A vote-splitting problem between the Democratic candidates and the smaller Human Rights Party had resulted in the Republican mayor James Stephenson winning the previous election with only 47% of the vote.

However, the 1975 election ensured a majority winner with no spoiler problem. After the first round of counting, Human Rights Party candidate Carol Ernst trailed the field of three with about 11% of first preferences:

First Preference Votes for Stephenson            14,453 
First Preference Votes for Wheeler                 11,815
First Preference Votes for Ernst                        3,181
First Preference votes for write-in Candidates        52   
Total Valid First Preference Votes                  29,501

After ballots for write-ins and Ernst were redistributed, Wheeler narrowly edged Stephenson by 121 votes. Stephenson contested the race, but in November the court upheld it as constitutional, declaring that IRV does not violate the “one person, one vote” principle, and that it does not give different weight to voters.

In September, local Republicans began a petition drive to repeal IRV, succeeding in an April 1976 ballot question that saw very low voter turnout.

About Albert Wheeler:

Before his run for mayor, Wheeler spearheaded the push in Michigan for a state Civil Rights Commission in the 1960s, and helped found Ann Arbor Civic Forum, forerunner to the Ann Arbor NAACP chapter, which he served as president in 1966–69. He was also instrumental in establishing the Ann Arbor Human Rights Commission.

He was the University of Michigan’s first tenured Black professor, and directed the Treponema laboratory at the University. In the early 1970s, he took leave to serve the Archidiocese of Detroit, running for mayor shortly after his return to Ann Arbor.

Upon Wheeler’s death in 1994, University of Michigan President James J. Duderstadt said the mayor “pioneered in the field of higher education to grant full access and equal opportunities to all minorities.”

The University Record memorialized, “Friends and colleagues also remember Wheeler, professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology, as a fervent social and political activist within the community, particularly with respect to his advocacy of civil rights. He was also a mentor for minority faculty as they became acclimated to the campus and community environments.... He also targeted the city of Ann Arbor, Southeast Michigan, the state and the nation as a whole. He was an inspirational and tireless leader whose accomplishments in all of these arenas are well documented. What is equally important, is the fact that Prof. Wheeler nurtured a host of others to carry on his work, because, despite the considerable progress at the University and on society at large, much remains to be done.”

Albert Wheeler’s three daughters went on to have outstanding careers in public and private service. Mary McDade became an attorney; Nancy Francis was a Washtenaw County probate judge; Alma Wheeler Smith was legislative aide to a state senator, a county commissioner, and became a state senator herself.

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