What Eastpointe’s historic use of ranked-choice ...

What Eastpointe’s historic use of ranked-choice voting means for Black voters’ rights

A new documentary explores how the Detroit suburb implemented a new election system to settle a DOJ lawsuit over Voting Rights Act violations.

An Eastpointe voter fills out their ballot on Election Day, 2019. Credit: Grace McNally.

Halfway through filmmaker Grace McNally’s 2020 documentary short “Eastpointe,” a resident of the suburb bordering northeast Detroit and his teenage son walk to their local polling place on Election Day. 

“No matter what election you have, whether it’s for dog catcher, sheriff, whatever, you always what?” the man asks. 

“Go vote,” his son dutifully responds.

The sentiment is familiar, but in 2017 the U.S. Justice Department determined that “go vote” was not enough in Eastpointe, a city with a fraught racial history. The DOJ sued the city for violating the Voting Rights Act, claiming that “racially polarized voting patterns” saw “white voters consistently opposing and defeating the preferred candidates of Eastpointe’s sizable black community.” 

Between 2000 and 2017, the population of Black residents in Eastpointe jumped from 7% to more than 40%. But until 2017, no Black candidate had ever won a race for council, school board or legislative district in the city. Monique Owens became the first Black candidate elected to City Council in 2017 (after the DOJ suit was filed), and then was elected the city’s first Black mayor in 2019

Ranked-choice voting involves ranking candidates from most to least preferred and gives voters input even if their first-choice candidate is not victorious. Its use in Eastpointe marked the first time that the Department of Justice implemented the system as a remedy for a Voting Rights Act violation.

That’s where “Eastpointe,” released this month, picks up. The 28-minute short follows the city’s 2019 City Council race, in which four candidates vied for two open seats in the city’s first election decided by ranked-choice ballots. Two candidates were white (Sarah Lucido and Harvey Curley) and two were Black (Mary Hall-Rayford and Larry Williams).

Michigan United canvassers shown in a still from “Eastpointe.”

Mixed reception to ranked-choice voting 

Through interviews of residents, candidates and experts, the documentary argues that winner-take-all, majority rule voting systems — like the one most Americans are accustomed to — constrain minority representation in democracy.

“When you’re less than half the population, you get nothing. Because the Caucasian population [in Eastpointe] is 55%, they kind of run everything,” explained Tim Ellerbe, an employee of nonprofit civil rights organization Michigan United who is featured in “Eastpointe.” With ranked-choice voting, he said, there are more opportunities for every individual’s vote to count.

“Historically, [Voting Rights Act] violations have been resolved by creating single-member districts,” Chris Lamar, legal counsel on redistricting for the Campaign Legal Center, said in the film. That process would have involved breaking up a city into different districts, with one of the districts to contain a majority of Black voters. (Detroit, which is majority-Black, implemented by-district City Council elections in 2013.) But Eastpointe residents balked at the idea

“They were proposing to make a ‘Black section’ of Eastpointe, basically,” said Albert Rush, a Black Eastpointe pastor whose congregation is predominantly white. “It just seemed like we were taking a step back with that kind of approach.”

Several of the Eastpointe residents who appear early in McNally’s documentary didn’t see the need for federal intervention at all. “Many residents felt that Eastpointe was being picked on by the Department of Justice,” recalled Lucido. The documentary features a montage of incredulous Eastpointers, all white, making comments like “If we’ve got issues, we can handle them” at a City Council meeting. Owens offered a different perspective. She talked about feeling unwelcome in certain areas of the city while campaigning and demanded, “Why do I have to do everything, more than anybody, just to prove to you I’m good enough?”

How Eastpointe put the new voting system in place

A ranked-choice system was the DOJ’s alternative to redistricting. Unlike winner-takes-all systems, where a top vote-getter can sometimes win without a majority of votes, ranking gives voters whose first-choice candidate is eliminated another chance to have their voice heard. If no candidate secures a majority (or plurality, depending on the number of open seats), the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to remaining candidates until someone gains a majority.

“Everyone has one vote, but they rank their vote in order of preference,” explained Pedro Hernandez, senior policy coordinator at nonpartisan voting reform group Fair Vote.

Here’s how it worked in Eastpointe:

  1. Each voter ranked the four candidates from favorite to least favorite. 
  2. First-choice counts were tallied, and the candidate with the most first-choice votes (Sarah Lucido) was determined. Lucido had more than the 1 + 33.3% of votes needed to secure a plurality in the two-seat race. 
  3. After she hit that plurality, the “leftover” votes for Lucido were proportionally redistributed to the remaining three candidates according to the voters’ second-choice votes. 
  4. After redistribution a second-round tally was created. With 35.7% of the vote, Harvey Curley was awarded the second City Council seat.

Races may also be tallied so that last-place candidates are eliminated first and their votes are redistributed to their supporters’ second-choice candidates. That’s what happened in Eastpointe’s November 2020 City Council election, which only had one open seat.

In the end, the two white candidates won the 2019 City Council election. While the optics of the election results may seem counterintuitive when the procedural change was meant to create equitable representation, the goal was not necessarily to elect a Black person: it was to make sure that the Black community of Eastpointe was able to elect a candidate of their choice.

Black voters might prefer the platform of a white candidate, which exit polling indicated was the case in 2019. And no matter the outcome, ranked-choice voting changes the relationship between candidates and voters, forcing candidates to reach out beyond their base.  

“People can vote based on identity, if you like. But we also need to look at who voters preferred for their candidate,” said Hernandez. “Under the old system, it could have been the case that whoever wins wouldn’t have to campaign for the African American vote. But under this system, it forces candidates to actually appeal to those voters… Candidates were probably more aggressive in making sure that they were talking to African American voters to make sure they are their candidate of choice.” 

An Eastpointe voter shown in a still from “Eastpointe.” Credit: Grace McNally.

A system to make voices heard — and for ‘sharing power’

Eastpointe is the first area in Michigan to implement ranked-choice voting, aside from a 1975 mayoral election in Ann Arbor. At first glance, the system seems like a silver bullet: results are more equitable, mudslinging campaign tactics are discouraged and the race is friendlier for candidates, and the need for run-off elections is eliminated. 

But in New York City, where ranked-choice voting is poised to take place in a mayoral primary next year, six City Council members have filed suit in New York Supreme Court to halt implementation. They’re concerned about voter disenfranchisement, particularly in Black and brown communities, because of a lack of voter education. “We want a stay because there’s been no education about this in our community,” Hazel N. Dukes, the president of the New York State chapter of the NAACP, told the New York Times. 

Hernandez said that voter education is one of the most important parts of implementing a new voting system and that showing an image of the ballot is the best way to educate voters. In Eastpointe, voter education efforts included public meetings, door-to-door canvassing, a website and information that was delivered with water bills. 

“This system, when done right, is a way of sharing power,” said Justin Levitt, a constitutional law scholar who served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division from 2015 to 2017. That’s the angle that “Eastpointe” leans into. Ranked-choice voting, Levitt said, is a way to “(recognize) majority rule without shutting out the minority community entirely, across the board.”

Stream the full documentary for free here.

Maggie McMillin is an Elections SOS fellow with Detour Detroit.