Eastpointe adopts ranked-choice voting to get more minorities elected

Eastpointe is the first city in Michigan to adopt ranked-choice voting. It will cost the city thousands of dollars but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the $1 million it would have cost to fight the justice department in court.

"If there are four people running for a city council seat or three people running, each voter will have the opportunity to rank their preference," said Robert Ihrie, city attorney.

Ranked-choice voting --- if a federal judge approves it, that's how Eastpointe residents will pick council members in the 2019 city election.

The shift in voting style is part of settlement agreement with the Department of Justice which sued Eastpointe over its prior method of at-large voting. The DOJ says that sapped the voting strength of black residents. 

In nearly all face-offs between black and white candidates. White voters, who are the majority in Eastpointe, cast their ballots as a bloc to defeat black voters' preferred candidates.

Here's how the new system would work.

"As soon as one candidate gets 50 percent or more of the vote, that person is considered the winner," said Ihrie. "If nobody gets 50 percent of that first round, the lowest first place vote-getter is eliminated." 

FOX 2: "Do you think this adequately addresses the initial concerns about voting in Eastpointe?" 

"I don't know," said Mary Hall-Rayford, a black Eastpointe resident and city council candidate.

"I don't think it has minorities to do with it either way," said Shirley Peak, a white resident. I think it's individual person that's capable of running for the position and it depends on how many people vote for them."

"The ranking is something I believe is going to be a work in progress," said Elisha Brown, a black resident.

"I think it does address it, but in addition to this, the education addresses it overall," said City Councilwoman Monique Owens.

Owens, the city's first and only black council member, says the lawsuit also pointed to low black voter turnout as an issue. 

Owens says a voter education program, which is also part of the settlement agreement, would inform residents on ranked-choice voting and the importance of city elections and local politics. She believes that would help spur black voter turnout.

"If we're not educated on laws, policies and procedures, then I will probably be the last person elected that gets elected," she said. "And so in order for us to move forward to have everybody at the table, we have to educate everybody.

The agreement and new voting method would be in place for four years or two city election cycles. After that, Eastpointe could go back to at-large voting or keep the new ranked-choice voting system in play.

"This methodology in voting will not necessarily resolve all problems," said Ihrie. "But it will enhance the ability of minorities to have a minority elected."

The city will offer no-excuse absentee ballots to get more people voting. FOX 2 reached out to the justice department for comment on the agreement but there has been no response.