Making voting harder to try to get you to vote

This year we are going to experience a significant change in elections – one filled with intended and unintended consequences.  Unless stopped by a lawsuit, Michigan election law has eliminated straight-party voting.  TAnd that has implications beyond my imagination.

I’ve been analyzing the possible effects for several months, ever since the governor signed the law eliminating straight-party voting in January. I’m not alone – but the impact from this decision has yet to be felt, so it isn’t in everyone’s thoughts.
On Thursday, July 7th, Ann Arbor’s City Council will consider whether to ask voters (on the November ballot) to eliminate partisan elections for local (Council/Mayor) elections. If the Council places this charter amendment on the ballot, and the voters approve it, there will be unintended consequences of this act, too.

I’ll break it down in my usual way, by asking questions.

First, what is the problem the change in state law is intended to address?

The official rationale seems to be that the problem is that, currently, voters don’t learn about down-ticket races, and when they vote straight-party tickets, they help elect unqualified or under qualified candidates.

The cynical among us would assert that the problem is that the lesser-known candidates, such as candidates for the State Board of Education, the Secretary of State, Regent, and local elected officials benefit from straight party voting – and in some places, that benefit is reflected in higher numbers of elected Democrats.

The optimistic among us assert that the problem is voters don’t know who they are voting for, and they should. They expect voters to become increasingly vigilant and learn more about the candidates running for each office so they can make educated decisions. 

40 other states prohibit straight-party voting. Nearly all of those states also allow early, no-question absentee voting. 

Voters in Michigan have twice overturned efforts to eliminate straight-party voting; because this law was attached to an appropriations bill, they don’t get that opportunity a third time.

Now, what is the problem that would be addressed by eliminating partisan elections for local office?

The official rationale seems to be that, in Ann Arbor, the winner of the low-turnout August Democratic primary is frequently the only candidate for local office on the November ballot. That’s because the local Republican Party has failed to put forward candidates for over a decade, and very few people run as Independents.

Currently, most candidates for city council and mayor in Ann Arbor win if they are on the Democratic ticket. That means that vying to be the Democratic candidate is often where the political action is. State election law requires that the Democratic and Republican primaries be held on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in August. As a result of that, the candidates running in local elections as Democrats are often selected in August. And since there are few people running as Independents, and no people running as Republicans (in the last decade), the person who wins the August primary is frequently the only candidate on the November ballot.

By eliminating partisan identification, the proposed charter amendment would allow multiple candidates to file for the nomination, and, if more than 2 candidates filed, there would be a primary in August. The 2 who received the majority of the votes would then appear on the November ballot. If only 2 candidates file for the nomination, then there would be no primary, and those 2 would appear on the November ballot. If only 1 candidate files, of course, there would be only 1 candidate on the November ballot

The cynical among us assert that this proposed charter amendment is an effort to allow Republicans and others espousing beliefs that differ from those of Democrats to run for local elections without having to reveal what they really believe.

The optimistic among us believe that, by eliminating party labels and establishing a route to a competitive race in November, local voters will be more inclined to become educated about candidates and more engaged in local politics, and will turn out more heavily in local elections.

Most other cities in Michigan have non-partisan local elections. That is because state law now requires that only major (read that as non-local) parties appear on the ballot. This relatively new law was established after the Human Rights Party won seats on City Council in 1972 and 1973. 

Does straight-party voting really matter?

In a state that does not allow early voting or no-reason absentee voting, straight-party voting saves significant amounts of time, especially in urban areas. But it does more than that. It increases the number of votes cast in down-ticket, local partisan races.

Of course, there’s no easy way to say by how much straight-party voting increases vote totals in November elections. But there’s an easy way to see the impact. If the First Ward in 2014 – the most recent even-numbered year where this would matter – nearly half (1980) of the votes that the Council candidate received were cast through straight-party voting. Another 2215 votes were cast specifically for her. 

I just have to imagine 1980 people in line to vote. Ticking each box off one by one, checking names and party affiliation, as others wait in the cold and dark for their turn at the ballot.  How many minutes would this add to the line – and not change the outcome for local races?   How many voters would just go home, or to work, or to the ball game?  And 2014 was a gubernatorial election, with both Governor and US Senator on the ballot, increasing potential turnout.  Presidential election years are potentially worse.

Does partisan ID really matter?

One theory is that non-partisan races will be more exciting and more interesting, and will increase turnout. A related theory is that better candidates will run if those candidates don’t have to identify as Democrats. 

 I don’t really buy that last idea. People who don’t want to identify as Democrats can still run for City Council and Mayor, and they can still win. This is especially so if straight-party voting is eliminated by state law. Because each voter would need to actively select each candidate, someone running as an Independent (as did Jane Lumm in the Second Ward) could be competitive and could win. And someone running under a different party label (Michigan recognizes Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, US Taxpayers Party [UST] and the Natural Law Party [NLP]) could, at any time in the future, be elected – especially since Michigan has eliminated straight-party voting. 

Because I have biases, I always try to check my facts. So I did a little math on the number of votes cast for partisan vs. non-partisan elections, too. On the general assumption that each person who voted for School Board candidates voted for four (and not two or three) candidates, I divided the number of votes cast – in total – for school board in the First Ward by four, which is the total number of votes anyone could cast. That number was 2811. I know that it may not be an accurate number, but I bet it’s reasonably close. 

The total number of votes cast for the Democratic candidate was 4195. 

This simple comparison is revealing to me, because there can be a lot of publicity for school board candidates, and very little for the council candidates running in November, particularly if there is no contest. It seems very clear to me that more people voted for a Democrat than they did for non-partisan school board candidate.

There’s more than that, however. It’s not about the number of votes alone, at least, it shouldn’t be.

If we took a general poll of people in Ann Arbor, there could easily be consensus about what problems the City should be solving – but the way we prioritize those problems would differ from person to person, from philosophy to philosophy. And the way we think the City ought to solve those would also be different. Just as the Democratic Party has been wrangling over its platform this year, trying to find a way to emphasize some problems and solutions over others, so do Democrats. When I vote for a Democrat, I believe I’m voting for a person who will support the issues I want the elected officials to prioritize  and the types of solutions I believe will work.  If those aren’t the positions candidates really hold, I want to elect someone else.  I use party labels to tell me what local and national positions a candidate will hold.   So do many others.

Right now, voters in Ann Arbor expect local candidates running for election to reflect the positions that their party has taken. And right now, that means Democrats are more reflective of the values Ann Arbor voters hold than are Republicans – or Greens or Libertarians (and don’t get me started on the US Taxpayers or the Natural Law parties . . .) That may not always be the case. How well a national party reflects local interests changes.

There are other considerations

Many people are horrified by the amount of money spent (and therefore raised) for political elections.  The State of Michigan recently increased the maximum amount a donor can give for primary and general elections (from $500 to $1000 in each).  And the cost of running a local campaign continues to increase at the same time it becomes increasingly difficult to reach voters.  Presidential campaigns are discussing the damage done by relying on donors who give to have access (Donald Trump gave to Hillary Clinton for that reason, after all).  How much more money do we want to spend on local elections?  (5 primaries and 5 general elections could easily pour over $100,000 into campaigns, given how much has been spent in recent years.)

If a candidate doesn’t  have great social connections, she or he may. be unable to raise sufficient funds to be competitive.  On top of that, I wonder whether we should be selecting candidates based on how well off their friends and connections are.  (PACs and corporations can give even more than individuals, after all.)

Another consideration that I haven’t seen addressed is that, in races where fewer people vote (such as non-partisan races) the number of people actually selecting candidates is reduced, not increased.    

But why do only Democrats win Council seats – and isn’t that a bad thing?

Democrats win because people in Ann Arbor vote for Democrats. They expect those Democrats to reflect their viewpoints – within the context of the Democratic Party, of course.

But Democrats don’t always win. Jane Lumm, the Independent Council member from the Second Ward, has won repeatedly – each time against a well-funded and well regarded Democrat. She wins because she prioritizes problems and recommends solutions that a majority of voters in the Second Ward support. She does not run as a non-partisan candidate, and many of her voters remember when she served on Council as a Republican. The voters who support her – who may otherwise support Democrats – believe she is most effective for them on Council.

That’s the way politics works.

Some people use local elections as spring boards to greater things. Several people on Council have, in the past, run for judge or state representative. If we elect people to local offices without knowing where they stand on issues that are larger than potholes and storm water, we have not done ourselves any favors. 

The elimination of straight-party voting opens the door for Independent candidates to run and win in local elections. And whether you think that’s a good thing, it’s a true thing.

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