Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

June 17, 2012

Lessenberry: Michigan voters will have their hands full with ballot

Here's something about the November election you may not realize: If Michigan voters go to the polls, get in the voting booth, and really study the ballot before making the best decision possible "¦ the whole system will break down.

Why? Simply because it might take every voter a half hour, at the very least, to sort out the vast number of candidates, races, and complex ballot proposals. Depending on how many signatures the various campaigns collect, we could be asked to decide four, eight or more complex proposed laws or state constitutional amendments.

Most voters will go to the polls knowing that they want either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney to be President. They'll probably have made their choices for U.S. Senate and Congress, too.

But what about their local sheriff, county clerk and treasurer? Those are positions that voters in some counties will have to decide. What about local and state supreme court judges?

Voters may — or perhaps may not — have an idea about their local member of the state House of Representatives. But how about community college trustees? District judges? Members of the boards of trustees for Michigan's three largest universities?

Add to that ballot proposals. The likeliest to be on the ballot includes a union-driven proposed constitutional amendment that would prevent the government from tampering with collective bargaining rights for either private sector or public sector unions.

Depending on how the courts rule, there may be a measure that would repeal Michigan's tough emergency manager law, which would have a major and largely unknown effect on a number of cities and school districts now under manager control.

Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun is also paying canvassers to gather signatures to try to amend the constitution to prevent any new Detroit River bridge being built without a statewide popular vote, and the list goes on.

How do voters make intelligent, informed choices on all these issues and people in a few moments in a voting booth?

Actually, they don't — because they can't. Many people either skip many of the proposals and the less-visible races, or make uninformed guesses. In the case of judges, voters often select candidates with familiar or judicial-sounding last names, which is why there are so many judges named Kelly, Kelley or O'Brien.

Frankly, the ballot resembles nothing so much as a complex take-home college test — except that most voters aren't allowed to take the ballot home, or vote absentee. There is an internet service, www.publius.org, that will give you a copy of the exact ballot you'll face if you type in your zip code, but few voters know it exists.

Legally, you can only vote absentee in Michigan if you are more than 60 years old, expect to be out of town on Election Day, are in jail awaiting, ahem, trial or arraignment, can't vote physically without assistance or for religious reasons "¦ or have to work that day as an elections inspector in a polling place where you don't live.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who has been pushing election reform, has said she favors what's known as "no-reason" absentee voting, as long as safeguards are in place to prevent fraud.

When legislation was introduced to allow expanded absentee voting three years ago, then-State Sen. Michelle McManus sniffed that she thought it would invite "absentee voter shenanigans" by the controversial group ACORN and other such groups.

However, election experts with the secretary of state's office say there has never been any evidence of absentee fraud — or, indeed, any other form of voter fraud — in modern Michigan history.

Why lawmakers would want to prevent voters from being adequately informed is a good question, but with a major national election coming, this would seem like a sensible to time to legalize no-fault absentee voting. However, there seems little chance of that.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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