Michigan reforms election calendar

Transition removes burden from school districts

Michigan has just crossed the threshold into an era of consolidated elections. Starting this year, all elections in the state — including federal, state, school and local elections — must take place on one of four regular election dates. Many hope that the change will ensure voters participate in more election decisions, particularly school ballots, while others fear the change will lead to confusion and longer ballots in the voting booth.

The first test of the new system occurred in the Feb. 22 election, when scores of communities turned out to vote primarily on local tax issues. This election did seem, based on a cursory review of the voting numbers, to have higher voter turnout than similar elections in the past. At the same time, this election was not a complete test of the new system, since the ballot included fewer issues and therefore did not pose the same risk of ballot clutter that a presidential election would.

Under the new election regimen, the four statutory election days each year are the fourth Tuesday in February; the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May; the first Tuesday after the first Monday in August; and the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In addition, all elections will now be run by local and county clerks. The parallel system of school-run elections will cease, along with its separate polling places and separate absentee voter procedures.

There are three exceptions to the four regular election dates. The first is the constitutional authority of the governor to call an election to fill a vacant state House or state Senate seat, and of the state Legislature to place constitutional amendments before the electorate in special elections.

The second exception allows cities that currently hold their primary election in September to continue to do so.

The third exception was added to overcome opposition from public school districts and school employee unions. It allows a school district to submit one annual ballot question to voters to borrow money or increase taxes. This so-called "floater" election requires the district to obtain or receive a petition signed by either 10 percent or 3,000 of the district’s registered voters, whichever is less. The election must be on a Tuesday, and it cannot occur within 35 days of one of the four regular election dates.

These sweeping changes come after a legislative struggle that persisted for at least a decade. The abundance of Michigan’s governmental units and candidates has given ammunition to both sides of the election consolidation debate.

According to the Citizens Research Council, Michigan hosts 2,884 local units of government, 14th highest among the 50 states. As of 1998, these local units were comprised of 1,859 counties, cities, villages and townships; 748 education districts, including intermediate school districts and community college districts; and 277 special districts and authorities created for specific purposes.

Most of these districts have elections. Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger says that this abundance of governments and the constitutional election date requirement result in Michigan having the longest November presidential-year general election ballot of any state — the so-called "bed sheet ballot."

The numbers are imposing: According to Ballenger, in November 2004 Michigan voters selected from candidates seeking some 7,500 elected positions in national, state, judicial, county and township elections. (No single voter faces 7,500 choices; the elections are spread around the state.)

These positions included more than 5,900 races across the state for elected township officers. Add to this the presidential election; 15 U.S. House of Representatives seats; the state Supreme Court and appellate court judges; circuit, district and probate court judges; 110 members of the state House of Representatives; the state Board of Education; and governing board members of Michigan State University, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan (state Senate members were not on the ballot last November). Then there are state and local ballot initiatives — everything from the definition of marriage to local library millage renewals.

This represents only November in even-numbered years. At other times, there are primary elections; school elections; city and village elections; library and other special district elections; plus a stream of tax and borrowing ballot issues from various levels of government in the state. Prior to the recent election consolidation, the tax and borrowing issues in particular could occur on almost any day of the year.

Those who favor more election dates point to the excessive length of that November "bed sheet ballot," which slows voting, leads to long lines at the polls and may discourage voter participation. Even when a voter enters the polling booth, participation may suffer, since many of those voting in high-profile presidential or gubernatorial elections will stop voting before they reach the more obscure races farther down the ballot. In 2000, 4.2 million Michigan citizens voted for president, but a million fewer voted for state Board of Education candidates. The disparity can be even greater for races at the bottom of the ballot.

Supporters of election consolidation, on the other hand, typically point to the sparse turnout in the regular school elections that have been held in June. They allege that school districts have scheduled "stealth" tax increase votes on unusual dates in order to make voting difficult or inconvenient for those who do not have a personal financial interest in increasing school spending. They make a similar argument about June school board elections (held on a Monday), and they note that voter turnout rates of less than 5 percent are the norm in regular and special school elections. Contributing to this low participation rate, they argue, was the fact that for most voters, school election polling places were not the same as those for other elections, and that these elections had different absentee ballot procedures, confusing absentee voters.

From a longer-term historical perspective, they continue a trend that has been under way for almost two centuries.

After the U.S. Constitution was ratified, federal elections in the various states took place on different dates. The Constitution, however, gave Congress the authority to impose a single date, and in 1845, Congress passed a law that effectively required all congressional elections to take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The Michigan Constitution of 1850 stipulated only that the state Legislature be elected in November of even years. The 1908 state constitution consolidated elections for legislators, the governor and other state officers, judges and county sheriffs into the "biennial general election," also in November of even years. The current state constitution, adopted in 1963, requires that all elections for national, state, county and township offices take place in November in each even-numbered year.

These gradual election consolidations in the state’s constitution did not include the state’s many school, municipal and other elections.

By 2003, a consensus had formed in the state Legislature that, at the very least, the job of superintending elections could potentially distract school districts from their primary mission of educating children. Many legislators were also beginning to question the wisdom of maintaining two separate election systems in the state — one run by school districts, and another run by county, township and municipal clerks.

The Michigan Education Association, which had successfully opposed election consolidation efforts in previous legislative sessions, surprised observers by taking no position on the legislation that would end school-run elections beginning in 2005, though the union did win the important concession of the school "floater" election described above. The bills passed, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed Senate Bill 877 and House Bills 4820 and 4824 into law on Jan. 8, 2004. The new system went into effect on Jan. 1, 2005.

How will this change affect voting behavior in Michigan? First, the "bed sheet ballot" characteristic of November general elections in even years could get a bit longer, since the law allows school board elections to be held on this date. Nevertheless, the new law does not mandate that additional contests be added to the abundance of offices filled on that day, so in many election areas, the ballot length probably will not change. In general, elections for various governmental units will probably be spread among the seven other regular election dates that occur over each two-year voting cycle (four election dates per year).

Transitioning to the new system may be confusing at first. One thorny issue is the fact that school and municipal boundaries do not always coincide. The new election consolidation law requires schools and county or municipal election officials to devise a school election plan every two years to deal with this issue. Local units of government will run school elections, and school districts will reimburse them from the operating funds that the schools receive from the state.

This expense to schools, however, is expected to be less than the cost they faced when running elections themselves. In addition, the new arrangement may gradually encourage school districts to align their boundaries with those of local governments, which supporters of the new law hope will make the election process easier for voters and election officials. Regardless of these potential benefits, however, straightening out the details of the new election regime is likely to present school and local officials with challenges in the months to come.