What the Numbers Tell Us About the 2019 East Lansing Council Election

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Thursday, November 7, 2019, 8:16 am
Chris Root

According to unofficial results, approximately 17 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2019 East Lansing City Council election. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

The big picture of this year’s election results for the East Lansing City Council race emerged quickly, showing that incomers Jessy Gregg and Lisa Babcock won significantly more votes than incumbents Mark Meadows and Erik Altmann. ELi reported this result on election night, along with the two-vote difference between Meadows and Altmann that made the final results too close to call that night.

A follow-up article Wednesday morning looked into when the election results will be certified – we expect Gregg, Babcock, and Meadows to be declared the winners in the next couple of days – and provided one local pundit’s observations on the outcome. One of the takeaways from that pundit, Mark Grebner, was that Gregg and Babcock saw “kind of a blow-out” win, while “the incumbents were broadly unpopular.”

The fact that voters decisively brought two challengers onto the City Council indeed stands out immediately from the unofficial vote count:

2019 race           Votes        % of voters

Jessy Gregg         2,944        65.3%

Lisa Babcock       2,871        63.7%

Mark Meadows    1,951       43.3%

Erik Altmann       1,949       43.2%

John Revitte        1,397       31.0%

Warren Stanfield    628        13.9%

Gregg and Babcock received votes from about two-thirds of residents who voted, compared to Meadows’ and Altmann’s support from just above 43 percent of voters. This is a differential of more than 20 percentage points between the two challengers on the one hand and the two incumbents on the other.

Where were Meadows’ and Altmann’s relative strengths?

Looking at the precincts in the East Lansing community (not counting the small number of votes in the precincts on the MSU campus), there is only one exception to the pattern of Gregg and Babcock both getting more votes than did Altmann and Meadows. That exception is the Bailey neighborhood south of Burcham Drive, where Altmann lives. In this precinct, Altmann came in second. (The top four vote-getters were Gregg [226 votes], Altmann [216 votes], Babcock [180 votes], and Meadows [178 votes].)

In the competition for votes for the third Council seat in the election, which Meadows won by 2 votes, there were a few precincts where Altmann did better than Meadows.

Altmann ran ahead of Meadows in the near downtown neighborhoods of Glencairn (43 more votes for Altmann than Meadows), Chesterfield Hills (9 more votes for Altmann), and Bailey (38 more votes for Altmann than for Meadows).

Meadows received more votes than Altmann in more northern neighborhood precincts, including Pinecrest and Tamarisk (38 more votes for Meadows), Whitehills (24 more votes for Meadows), and Hawk’s Nest (10 more votes for Meadows). Meadows lives in the Hawk’s Nest neighborhood.

There was not a significant difference in support for Meadows compared to Altmann in the student precincts or in the Red Cedar neighborhood.

In the five on-campus MSU precincts, Babcock won the most votes (99), with MSU undergraduate student Stanfield coming in second with 70 votes.

Voter turnout this year and in previous years

A number of ELi readers have asked about the voter turnout in the November 5 election.

According to the latest, still unofficial results, 17.2 percent of registered voters in East Lansing voted this year. We saw 4,507 people vote from among the 26,267 currently registered to vote.

Here is how voter turnout this year compares to the three previous November elections for Council.

                                    2013       2015      2017       2019

People who voted       2,711      4,246      6,196      4,507

Registered voters      25,332    24,825    24,655    26,267

Percent turnout          10.7%     17.1%      25.1%      17.2%

Why the spike in November 2017? That was when the East Lansing income tax first was placed on the ballot (and failed). A total of 1,689 fewer people voted in 2019 than in the election two years earlier.

In 2019, 261 more people voted in the East Lansing election than in 2015. Nevertheless, the percentage turnout was about the same in 2015 and 2019 because there was also an increase in the number of registered voters this year, possibly in part because Proposal 3 has made registration easier and also because of voter registration drives on campus in the lead-up to the 2018 mid-term federal election.

Voters’ use of their three possible votes

In addition to the number of people who turned in a ballot, the number of votes cast for candidates was also affected by whether voters used all three of their available votes. Many did not use all three votes.

In 2019, 1,781 votes were left unused, which is 13.2 percent of the votes that could have been cast. (If all 4,507 persons who voted used all three of their available votes, there would have been a total of 13,521 votes for all of the candidates. The total votes cast for Council candidates was only 11,740.)

People have different reasons for choosing to vote for fewer than three candidates. They may feel a lack of enthusiasm for some candidates, or they may have some tactical thinking about the best way to benefit one or more of their favored candidates. Or they may simply have goofed.

In 2015 — the last election when East Lansing voters had six candidates to choose from for three Council seats — 4,246 voters cast 11,517 votes for City Council candidates out of 12,738 available votes (that’s the number of voters times 3), leaving 1,221 unused votes. Thus, 9.2 percent of votes were not used.

It’s possible that if voter turnout had been higher or if voters had cast more of their available votes, the difference between the third- and fourth-place finishers might have been greater.

In other words, if voters had used all their votes, Altmann might have beat Meadows, or Meadows might have more clearly beat Altmann, or we might have seen some other shift. The available data don’t let us see what combinations people voted, so we can’t see for sure who might have been eligible for the leftover votes.

What happened when the 2015 challengers became the 2019 incumbents:

In the Council race four years ago when Meadows and Altmann were elected to the Council along with Shanna Draheim, the only one incumbent on the ballot was Nathan Triplett. Here are the results of that race:

2015 race           Votes       % of voters

Mark Meadows    2,821        66.4%

Shanna Draheim  2,239        52.7%

Erik Altmann       2,212        52.1%

Nathan Triplett    1,955       46.0%

Steve Ross           1,339       31.5%

Jermaine Ruffin     934         22.0%

As shown, Meadows came in at the head of the pack in 2015, with 66.4 percent of the vote – similar to Gregg’s 65.3 percent and Babcock’s 63.7 percent vote in 2019. Draheim and Altmann came in second and third, with support from about 52 percent of voters.

Then-Mayor Triplett came in fourth and therefore lost his seat, with support from 46 percent of voters. That was more than Meadows’ and Altmann’s 43 percent support this year, but still not enough to win Triplett reelection that year.

Altmann and Draheim were electoral newcomers in East Lansing in 2015. Altmann was a political outsider at the time, and the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce ran a campaign of attack ads to try to keep him off Council.

Meadows, although not a Council incumbent at the time, already had high name recognition and was a political insider. He had served on City Council from 1995 to 2006 (and as Mayor for part of that time) and as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives from 2006 to 2012. (He lost to Andrea Larkin for the judgeship of 54B District Court in 2012.)

In 2015, the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce endorsed Meadows, Draheim, and Triplett, two of whom were successful. The Chamber endorsed Meadows and Gregg in 2019, both of whom were successful.

Here is how the votes for Meadows and Altmann compare from 2015 to 2019:

               Meadows               Altmann
2015     2,821 (66.4%)       2,212 (52.1%)

2019     1,951 (43.3%)       1,949 (43.2%)

Both received substantially fewer votes in 2019 than four years before – 870 fewer votes for Meadows and 263 fewer votes for Altmann, and both fell from majority-voter approval to around 43 percent.

In 2019, Meadows and Altmann ran heavily on their record of the last four years, including the claims that they had stabilized the City’s finances by passing the income tax and replaced the long-time downtown blight with major new development.

Newcomers Gregg and Babcock ran quite different campaigns from each other in terms of their messages, fundraising, and endorsements, but both ran as challengers of the current Council and as advocates of greater government transparency.

Revitte sent out one citywide mailer and published small ads in the Lansing State Journal and City Pulse but no Facebook ads, whereas the four top vote-getters all did. Stanfield appears to have sent no mailers and run no online ads.

When post-campaign financing reports are available, we’ll be bringing you analysis of that.

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