Haven't Detroit voters spoken enough?

By Brian Dickerson
Published October 16th 2009 in Livingston Daily
Detroiters will cast ballots early next month in their city's fourth mayoral contest in nine months. Nobody enjoys an election more than I do, but if this doesn't strike you as grossly excessive, you probably need a better hobby.

It's tempting to lay the blame for all this mayoral mishegoss at the feet of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose ill-timed felony plea set the current marathon campaign in motion more than a year ago. But in fairness, Kilpatrick saw this train wreck coming, and he did his best to head off what he presciently predicted would be an unprecedented exercise in democratic redundancy.

Back in April 2008, already confronting a felony indictment but still months away from his ignominious exit from office, Kilpatrick warned a genteel crowd at Birmingham's Townsend Hotel that Detroiters would reap the whirlwind if they drove him from office before his second term ended.

"What you don't want to happen is absolute chaos," he said. "You could have four mayors in 15 months."

But Kilpatrick's alternative — sticking with his administration until it had finished looting Detroit's treasury — proved impractical. Also, as with so many of hizzoner's pronouncements, Kilpatrick's forecast of perpetual electoral upheaval turned out to be exaggerated.

It's been a bumpy ride, alright, but unless prohibitive favorite and incumbent Dave Bing is indicted for grand larceny or his hapless challenger, Tom Barrow, is filmed rescuing infant quintuplets from a burning building, Detroit seems likely to limp into 2010 with only its third mayor in two years — a record of political stability that compares favorably to that of many Middle Eastern countries.

Still, four elections in nine months is nuts, particularly in a city that has to scramble to make payroll each week. No wonder Bing has had enough and opted, rather sensibly, to sit out the grand finale.

Of the four mayoral elections to which Detroiters were condemned last year, next month's seems the most egregiously pointless.

It's been just nine weeks since the mayoral primary in which incumbent Bing captured nearly three of every four votes cast, leaving Barrow and four other challengers to split the remaining 26 percent among them. So even if everyone who cast a vote for someone other than Bing rallies behind Barrow, and even if half of those Bing balkers bring a like-minded friend to the polls with them, Barrow faces a landslide of humiliating proportions.

Most other cities and states have sensible rules that dispense with a runoff election whenever one contender in a multicandidate field garners an absolute majority. In my native New York, for instance, first-place finishers in a primary election can avoid a runoff by winning just 40 percent of the vote in a multicandidate race.

Municipalities like Detroit could streamline even more closely contested elections by adopting a so-called instant-runoff system in which voters would be asked to rank, say, their top three choices in a crowded field. Votes for defeated candidates could be instantly reallocated among the top two vote-getters, generating a victor who could credibly claim at least a grudging mandate from an absolute majority of voters.

Either of these alternatives would be favorable to the prevailing system, in which an incumbent who has already prevailed in three recent elections (and should be dedicating all his waking hours to fending off municipal bankruptcy) is constrained to go through the motions with a challenger who has no reasonable chance of unhorsing him.

The irony of ironies is that the longer Detroit is distracted by this orgy of democratic excess, the more likely it is to end up in the hands of an appointed receiver or emergency financial manager whose only mandate is a fiduciary obligation to preserve assets and minimize expenses.

So even voters who never miss an election could end up being led by someone who was never on the ballot.