Is our political party preference genetic?

The election has passed and as you probably have guessed, I am not exactly pleased with the outcome.  However, as all politics go, the political pendulum swings back and forth over time.  I just hope it swings back my way before the current majority on council can do much damage.

There has been much talk recently about having non-partisan local elections for city council;  I am NOT in favor of it whatsoever.  I believe that the party label does show the basic viewpoints or values of a candidate.  Although, picking up garbage, fixing infrastructure, and supporting core services are non-partisan, there are many issues that effect a city that can and do fall within party affiliations, especially for a city as diverse as Ann Arbor.

What it means to be a Democrat or Republican (overall)

There are fundamental differences in the value system of a Democrat and a Republican.  Below are some highlighted viewpoints points for each party.  These are definitions compiled by me in what I know of the parties and from what I read on multiple websites, so there is no reference cited.  You can read Wikipedia1 pages for more info on the Democratic and Republican parties. Please keep in mind though that not everyone falls 100% in line with everything.  For example there are anti-choice Democrats and pro-choice Republicans.  Of course there may be crossover, but the idea when judging the party affiliation of a candidate is to look at the trend of all values and positions, not one specific viewpoint.

Democrats dem donkey

  • Stand for community responsibility and social justice.
  • Government is there to help society over the individual and to make it more equal.
  • Prefers a progressive tax system
  • Taxes should be used and pooled to help the greater good.
  • Government should regulate business so that business does not harm society.
  • The values of the country are not set in stone and they can evolve over time (eg. Gay marriage)
  • Pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-union
  • Highly in favor of accepting federal money for local projects. (State and local level)

Republicans republican-elephant

  • Stand for individual rights over the whole of society; economic equity is above all else
  • less governmental involvement in individual lives.
  • low taxes,
  • spending on core items only
  • less regulation of business (less governmental interference/no regulation),
  • strict constructionist (narrow view of constitution)
  • Anti-choice, anti-gay marriage, pro-business.
  • Does not believe in accepting federal money for local projects. (State and local level)

Now with those stated, you are probably wondering how any of those affect us here locally in Ann Arbor.  The difference does not fall in the core services:  police/fire, infrastructure repairs, garbage pickup ect.  Both parties want to fund core services.

The difference falls in the other things the city council might do.  Namely items such as:  public art, human services, supporting the greenbelt, supporting local festivals, investing in green energy projects, supporting one of the most actives downtown in the state, investing in transportation, etc.  This is a non-exclusive list and can include many other items.  The point here is to list items not in the core services that a city council might or has funded.

Democrats believe in investing in these items for the good of society.  All of society will benefit in the long run. These are things that are good for everyone even if some do not recognize the benefits right away.  They believe that the return on their investment is worth the initial expense.  These returns on investments are not necessarily monetary, but can be intangible, such as making Ann Arbor a better, more enjoyable place to live

Republicans typically don’t like to fund any of these items.  They believe that the private sector should step up and do these things.  They believe that taxes should just pay for core services and then have taxes lowered after the core services are funded.  They typically only look at the short-term expense.  If any of those additional items mentioned are really needed then an individual or the private sector should supply the funding.

Would a Republican see the benefits of changing over the city streetlights to Light Emitting Diodes (LED) or would they think of it as a waste of money and only look at the line item expense?

Would a Republican support the greenbelt or think that the idea of buying up development rights in order to create a “greenbelt” around the city to prevent sprawl was interfering with development?

Would a Republican support human services or affordable housing or do they  think that government has no business in these areas.

Would a Republican invest in innovative transportation initiatives or claim that if it was necessary that the market should bear the cost?

There are many things a city council does that can be labeled partisan. If those items that fall beyond core services are important to you, a party affiliation is useful in picking a candidate.  When evaluating a candidate, voters typically take many of these issues for granted and assume that they will always be funded.   The D or R after a name can show what a candidate is typically willing to fund, absent any other information.

Why Ann Arbor is different than other local municipalities

Ann Arbor is a unique place.  It is only 25 square miles but it has all the major attributes of a large metropolitan area.  It is the 5th largest city in Michigan2, however it is very different than the large suburbs of Detroit such as Warren, Sterling Heights, Dearborn and Livonia.


Large cities such as Detroit have characteristics that make them the center of a metropolitan area.  These characteristics include:  commuters who drive or bus into the city for work, complex systems for sanitation and transportation, and a heterogenic population of income levels.  They also typically have a vast array of entertainment options that people travel to the city to enjoy.

The suburbs around Detroit are “bedroom communities” where most residents live, but commute to other cities for work. They typically have homogenous populations within a similar income bracket (based on housing prices in a specific city).  Residents cross over easily between suburbs and travel to downtown for events.

Although Ann Arbor is small, it is different from a suburb because it performs as a large city.  It is not a suburb of another large municipality.  In fact, it is a municipality surrounded by other smaller municipalities.  Ann Arbor in a sense has suburbs of its own.  Ann Arbor has many people who commute to Ann Arbor for work rather than away from it; about 70,000 people commute to Ann Arbor every day3, which is a 60% increase in population size.  Ann Arbor also has a wide range of income levels within its city borders and has the heterogeneity that large cities entail.  Ann Arbor also has its very own drinking water and wastewater treatment plants along with a great bus system.  People can work, live and play here all within the city limits.  It is a unique place.  The taxes are high here because we have a big city lifestyle in a 25 sq mile area.

I am pointing out the uniqueness of Ann Arbor so that you will see that the issues that affect us in Ann Arbor are not equivalent to the issues that affect a suburb.   Suburbs may only have to fund core services because all the additional issues that Ann Arbor funds are unnecessary or taken care of by a neighboring municipality or at the county level.

Ann Arbor cannot act like a suburb, because we are not one.  Partisan elections may not be as important in the suburbs because they don’t need to consider many of the issues outside core services such as transportation and human services, and might not even have a downtown-city center area.

Due to the special position that Ann Arbor finds itself in, I believe that the partisan label on a candidate gives the voter a glimpse into what the candidate might fund absent any other information.  If we elect candidates who do not recognize or appreciate the uniqueness of Ann Arbor and who think of us as just another “suburb”, then we could lose some of those things that make Ann Arbor special.  The slippery slope may have already started, with recent votes in the last year against transportation initiatives and the refusal of federal funds.

Why non-partisan elections are a bad idea

Many people think that the problem with our local city council elections is that we have a partisan primary election that is causing low voter turn out.  Others think that if you allowed all candidates to run in the November general election as non-partisan that would solve the problem of low voter turn out.  Nothing is further from the truth.  The issue is not partisanship it is the actual date of the primary election, but I will get to the date issue later.  First we will talk about partisan vs. non-partisan elections.

While researching reference articles for this post I came across a great article “Will Nonpartisan Elections Make for Dumber Voters?” .   This article is very similar to my point of view.   It speaks to New York City’s attempt to change their local elections to non-partisan.

Here is an excerpt:

“According to David Schleicher, a law professor and native New Yorker who has studied municipal elections, nonpartisan balloting would make city voters less informed, less likely to vote and would create a less competitive atmosphere in down-ballot races.”

“The current system of local elections is a disaster,” he says of New York City. “But nonpartisan elections take a bad situation and make it worse. In general, nonpartisan elections are a terrible idea.”

In his study of partisan competition in municipal races, which was published in 2007, Schleicher compared the few remaining partisan election cities like New York and Philadelphia with the rest of the country. About 75% of American cities have embraced nonpartisan voting, he says.

There is a paradox in his findings. The issues that dominate national party politics often have little relevance at the city level, which makes partisan labels a poor indicator for a candidate’s policy positions. “Finding out what party a candidate for Congress belongs to tell you almost everything about her,” he says. “But finding out the same information about a candidate in a local election tells you very little.”

Yet in cities with nonpartisan voting systems, where party affiliations are kept off the ballots, citizens enter the voting booth with no information. A candidate’s national party loyalty may tell you little about his or her views on city issues, Schleicher argues, but it’s better than no information at all.

Nonpartisan elections “take a situation where you know where little and reduces it to zero,” he says. “All evidence shows that voters in nonpartisan election behave as if they have no idea what’s going on and they turn out in far smaller numbers.”

Studies have found that, without party labels, voters rely heavily on ethnic or racial clues in candidates names. In nonpartisan judicial elections, Schleicher notes, “candidates for judge that have honorable in front of their name do far better than candidates that don’t.”4

Nonpartisan elections do not increase voter turnout.  They are confusing to the voter, especially when there are many candidates that they know nothing about.  It basically becomes the eeny-meeny-miny-moe vote….a basic guess..  The voter might choose a candidate based on sex, or ethnicity or just because they are at the top of the list.  It can be random.  Although you can’t force the voter to be educated about all candidates before entering the voting booth, we should not take away the only educational tool they currently have when choosing a candidate.

Proof of the fact that non-partisan elections do not increase turnout is the judicial section of the ballot. Voters, who are physically voting at the polls, skip the non-partisan section when there is a partisan election further up the ticket.  The voter does not always understand that if they vote straight ticket that they are also supposed to vote in the non-partisan section; that the straight ticket does not vote for all offices.  Some voters are only interested in voting for someone who is party aligned and don’t care about non-partisan elections.  Moving to a non-partisan ballot in an election does not guarantee more votes for a non-partisan candidate even if the voter turnout is higher.

One only needs to look to the judge races to prove this fact where there is always an undervote for the judicial section of the ballot.  An undervote is where no vote is cast for a particular section of the ballot.

Last year Michigan Supreme Court candidate Bridget McCormack made a video with the cast of the West Wing to highlight this issue.  Take a look:

I know that some of you are now saying who cares, voters should not be voting when they are not informed.  The reality is that people do not do their homework completely, all the time.  They align themselves with the core values I mentioned for Democrats and Republicans in the beginning of the post and count on that to select a candidate.  I think it is just plain wrong to take that tool away from the voter.

The Real Problem

Our problem with low voter turn out in primary elections in Ann Arbor has nothing to do with party affiliation; it has to do with timing of the primary.  Our primary is in August.  August…the month when most people take vacations and are busy with other summer activities.  There is typically nothing else on the ballot, so most ignore the election.  Removing the primary and having all candidates run as non-partisan does not solve low voter turn out due to the issues stated above.  It just causes confusion for the voter. The council members who run in the November general election will probably have less votes cast for them than in previous elections due to the undervote effect of the non-partisan section of the ballot.

It is not a good thing that so few people vote in the council primary.  The best candidate is not always the winner due to the low turnout.  We need to get more people out to vote, plain and simple.  We don’t need to make it more complicated by blaming it on party labels.

Removing the partisan primary does nothing to increase voter turnout and ultimately affects not only the number of votes cast in the November election for council candidates, but also decreases the number of educated votes. ( increases the eeny-meeny-miney-moe vote).

What’s Not a Problem

Some say that if we got rid of partisan labels, then more people would consider running, that we have a lack of serious candidates.  Really?  I don’t think so.  We don’t live in an area with tons of independents and non-partisan types that are turned off from partisan politics.  If anything this is a very democratic area with democratic values.  The cry to get rid of partisan politics typically comes from the Republicans because non-partisan elections gives them an advantage.5  Why on earth would any Democrat want to do that intentionally?  We have enough trouble trying to expose the DINOs for what they are.  Why give the Republicans and Teapublicans an advantage.

Others say it is unfair that other parties can’t seem to get elected in a town that is as progressive as Ann Arbor.  They feel that the R or an I after their name is a disadvantage.  To that I say oh well..too bad.  Your viewpoint does not represent the viewpoint of the town.

Solutions 1- Move the primary date

According to Michigan Election law, elections can only be held in February, May, August and November (168.641).  The primary for a general election must be in the election date preceding the election. (168.642)  What that means is that if the election is in November, the primary must be in August. However it looks like we could move the primary to February and the election to May if the City Council wanted to pass a resolution.  I am not quite sure if my interpretation is correct but this is worth looking into if people are serious about increasing voter turnout by avoiding the August election date.

Solution 2- Instant runoff voting (IRV)

Instant runoff voting is a way for all candidates to be on the November general election ballot while skipping the primary.  I am only in favor of this if party affiliations can be listed on the ballot.  I am not insisting that there should be a primary election, just party labels at the end of a candidate’s name.

Here is how it works as stated on Wikipedia6:

Ballots are initially distributed based on each elector’s first preference. If a candidate secures more than half of votes cast, that candidate wins. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Ballots assigned to the eliminated candidate are recounted and assigned to those of the remaining candidates who rank next in order of preference on each ballot. This process continues until one candidate wins by obtaining more than half the votes.6

There is also a video from  explaining the concept:

Instant runoff voting seems to be an okay idea when there are many candidates running and when some of those candidates are from smaller parties (Green, Independents etc). It gives a leg up to the smaller party and independent candidates.  Over time it may have a negative effect on the more established parties (Dems and Repubs).

I know that many hate the two party system and are always pushing for other parties to break through into the mainstream.  However, most of these other parties tend to be the extremists (from either side of the aisle).  I don’t really care if they get established as a reputable party; they are just way too extreme on most things.  The IRV helps these extremists parties get a foot in the door towards legitimacy.

Then there are people who call themselves independents, but they are really a Dem or Repub. In the past 20 years the Republicans have successfully labeled “Democrat” as a bad thing.  It has made Democrats embarrassed to label themselves as such and Dems have a hard time winning in the south and other areas.  The funny thing is that here in Ann Arbor, the opposite is true.  Being Republican can cost you an election in most wards in the city.  Yet some local Dems are pushing for a system that will allow their candidates to potentially lose an election.  Go figure?

There are some true independents out there but they are few and far between.  An independent is someone who votes randomly depending on the circumstance, no trend linked to a party.  They don’t have a set stance for or against topics or issues but vote according the new information that appears at the time of the vote.  Although most would say that is exactly what they want in their elected official, it is rare for true independents to not eventually align with a group over time.  True Independents may not be unicorns, but they are definitely needles in a haystack.

There is also the problem of having too many candidates on the ballot with this system.  If and when participation picks up, the voter could be faced with a long list of candidates because there was no primary to whittle down the choices.  Is it really reasonable for a voter to have read up on 10 candidates and to select one?  The ‘educated’ voted rate goes way down. Many of the suburbs around Detroit have a large list of candidates.  It overwhelms the voter and the eeny-meeny-miney-moe vote is then used.

Personally, I could tolerate IRV, but am not in total favor of it.  A big plus though is that it prevents the “spoiler” effect where a third candidate that is similar to one of the other candidates takes votes away from that candidate causing the remaining candidate to win. The “spoiler effect is what happened in the Bush-Gore-Nader election.  Nader came in to the race and took votes away from Gore (mostly).  With IRV, Gore would have probably (surely?) have gotten more votes than Bush.  Something to look out for in the future is if the spoiler effect has an affect on the Mayoral race next year.

I think people get caught up in process, but don’t necessarily look at the outcomes.  If your change will actually hurt the outcome you really want, why institute the change?  I’d rather keep the extremists at the sides.  We don’t need to change the partisan system when what we want to fix is the voter turnout.

The Problem with DINOS (and RINOs too)

Some argue that partisan politics are meaningless in Ann Arbor because everyone puts a D after their name (or an I); the R is considered taboo and can’t get you elected.  Although that is true, we are a progressive town where conservative viewpoints are not easily tolerated, removing the labels does not help this problem; it actually helps the DINOs get elected easier.  When they include the D on their name it instills a responsibility to those values I mentioned at the beginning.  When the DINO does not abide by those values, the voter, the press and the bloggers can hold them responsible for their actions.  Without labels there is no accountability.  The voter is voting blindly for someone who has spouted campaign sound bites, but may not have said anything about their true ideology.

The local Washtenaw County Democratic Party, Ann Arbor Democratic Party and liberal bloggers (like me) need to be more forthright in calling out the DINOs.  Candidates do not have to be 100% in agreement with all aspects of a party, but if the majority of their viewpoints are conservative then it needs to be said outloud and often.  I plan on doing that on a regular basis.


Voters like partisan labels .  It gives them a glimpse into the values of a candidate.  Most voters don’t take the time to research all details about their candidates, especially those that don’t get national TV coverage.  Partisan labels give them a tool to use when choosing a candidate.

If the problem you want to fix is low voter turnout in the August primary, then deal with that and do not institute a change that will do nothing to solve that problem. It only moves the problem into the undervote category where people will now skip that section of the ballot.  It causes the voter to be less informed about their candidates.

I found this great scientific study on the differences between Democrat and Republican brains published in the online scientific journal PLOS ONE7 .  It is fascinating.  Darren Schreiber and his colleagues look at risk-taking behavior of Democrats and Rebulicans and the brain activity therein.  This Huffington post article8 has a write-up discussing the Schreiber’s published paper and is an easier read for those who aren’t used to reading scientific papers.  Here’s an excerpt:

The study, which examined the brain activity of 35 men and 47 women registered as either Democrat or Republican, found no difference in the amount of risk people of each political persuasion were willing to take on during a gambling game. But the way the brain processed risk worked differently between the groups, with Republicans showing more activity in an area linked with reward, fear and risky decisions and Democrats showing more activity in a spot related to processing emotion and internal body cues.

The findings hint at basic differences between people with different values, said study researcher Darren Schreiber of the University of Exeter.

“The ability to accurately predict party politics using only brain activity while gambling suggests that investigating basic neural differences between voters may provide us with more powerful insights than the traditional tools of political science,” Schreiber said in a statement.8


Schreiber and his colleagues can’t say whether the functional brain differences nudge people toward a particular ideology or not. The brain changes based on how it is used, so it is possible that acting in a partisan way prompts the differences.

The functional differences did mesh well with political beliefs, however. The researchers were able to predict a person’s political party by looking at their brain function 82.9 percent of the time. In comparison, knowing the structure of these regions predicts party correctly 71 percent of the time, and knowing someone’s parents’ political affiliation can tell you theirs 69.5 percent of the time, the researchers wrote.

So maybe our party preference is in part genetic?  Were we born this way?  Or is the environment more important based on the brains ability to change based on how it is used in a partisan way.  Interesting article nonetheless?  I leave you with that thought to ponder.

 Mutatis mutandis



1 I use Wikipedia a lot on this blog for definition purposes because it does do a good job explaining things in a thorough manner.  However, I do realize that not everything is always accurate in Wikipedia so I typically only use it for definition purposes.


3  Amy Biochimi, Top 5 ways not driving to work can make a difference in Ann Arbor.  Ann Arbor News, May2, 2013.

4  Arron Rutkoff, Will Nonpartisan Elections Make for Dumber Voters?  The Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2010.

5 Katrina vanden Heuvel, “Vote No to ‘Nonpartisan’ Elections”, The Nation,

October 30, 2003

6  Instant run-off voting  definition from Wikipedia

7  Darren Schreiber, et al.,  “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans”,  February 13, 2013.

8 Stephanie Pappas , “Republican Brains Differ From Democrats’ In New FMRI Study”.  Huffington Post, February 29, 2013.


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