by Lynn Jondahl, Executive Director of the Michigan Prospect for Renewed Citizenship
The following article appeared in the May 17, 2002, edition of the MIRS Newsletter in answer to the question: "As the Michigan Democratic party works to secure on the ballot a referendum on the Legislature's removal of straight party line voting as an option, is the law as passed true election reform or a GOP power play?"
That's an easy one – it's a GOP power play. As pitiful as that is, however, even more distressing is that true election reform possibilities were ignored.
A lot of people remember the elections of 2000 as revealing the need for changes in our electoral system. Many, many people in the United States, regardless of whether they voted, were critical of the Florida election system. In state after state around the country – including Michigan – election administrators and concerned citizens took a careful look at their voting systems and came forth with recommendations for proposals to improve the system in order to assure that: more eligible voters would register and vote; persons who show up at the polls would experience reduced confusion and congestion; votes cast would be counted.
Truth is, these electoral weaknesses or problems, and the proposed solutions, only hint at a much greater problem we face in our collective lives. We are experiencing an institutional crisis – our common institutions are weakened with major consequences. Few things are more important than how we carry out our common commitment to each other. And increasing numbers of people are looking for help in building and nurturing that common commitment.
The commentator and analyst, Bill MOYERS, made the following statement a while back, addressing political leaders, and it captures the context in which we are working today. (“America's Vision of the Future,” Keynote address, National Legislative Education Foundation, Democratic Issues Conference):
“We live, in short, in a very collective, very organized society in which we are all connected, in which the welfare and safety of each one of us is dependent on the health and wealth of a cooperative and collective enterprise. Government has become bigger and more centralized, not because we have become careless of our freedoms or morally lazy in our commitment to individual values, but because the important tasks that need to be done in our nation today are beyond the reach of single men and women. Making our society work – the flourishing of civilization – is everyone's business. It is what we do. Our individual freedom depends upon our participating memberships in democracy.”
One has to be impressed by individual voluntary actions – checks written to support families assaulted by terrorist attacks; purchase of Christmas meals, toys and clothing; fundraising for church, community recreation and school projects – that reflect a widespread spirit of generosity and goodwill. But such individual acts are, at best, very limited contributions to “the flourishing of civilization.” For that to happen, greater emphasis must be placed on strengthening American institutions – and those include families, schools, governments. “Public-opinion polls tell us that the American public is hostile to institutions, including Congress, the Presidency, labor unions, and corporations. Ordinary Americans and many scholars writing about community make the same assumption ...that voluntary community service is good, while government and other large institutions are bad. ... that voluntary community service can take the place of government programs. ... Government and political parties ... are in serious trouble. Political parties no longer function as grassroots organizations that mobilize citizens for sustained political involvement. So Americans are less and less likely to vote, and the political parties become fund-raising machines that serve special interests. The governments that result from such elections and fund raising necessarily are fragile, because they lack a firm public mandate and are easily paralyzed by scandal and gridlock. Politicians play to Americans' distaste for government ... further weakening political institutions. They guarantee that government will be less and less able to fulfill any political promises.” (“To Revitalize Community Life, We Must First Strengthen Our National Institutions,” Ann SWIDLER, The Chronicle of Higher Education.)
If our political leaders wanted to strengthen our political institutions and, by so doing, strengthen democracy in the face of growing cynicism and despair about our institutions, what would they do? They would figure out how to increase citizen confidence in political and governmental institutions and they would encourage citizen participation in political institutions.
A 34-country comparison of voter turnout in elections between 1991 – 2000 is revealing. The average U.S. voter turnout during those years was 45 percent. Only Colombia, Guatemala and Switzerland had lower average turnout. Several countries had voter turnout in excess of 80 percent: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, Denmark, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Sweden and Turkey. (www.fairvote.org/turnout/intturnout.htm)
Let's look at some figures from Michigan in the last election (2000). Around 57 percent of the voting age population in Michigan actually participated in the election. That compares with a Michigan high turnout in 1960 of 72.7 percent and is higher than the 55.3 percent vote in 1996 and lower than the 62.5 percent turnout in 1992. All in all the figures are pitifully low and suggest that with record amounts of money being spent in very competitive races a very lot of people still aren't participating. A democracy is better served by greater participation, not more selective participation.
In the face of the electoral fiascoes of a year and a half-ago Michigan legislators held hearings around the state asking citizens to testify about ways to improve the election process. Citizen groups held their own hearings and presented their proposals to legislators. The testimony revealed no major problems suggesting that Michigan's electoral system was in terrible shape. However, there were many suggestions for improvements that citizens urged legislators to examine and implement – improvements that would increase efficiency and participation without jeopardizing the accuracy/integrity of the voting system – without weakening the institutions of political activity. Nowhere in the state did a citizen or a citizen organization testify that straight-party voting diminished Michigan elections. No one asked that the straight-party voting option, which has been used in Michigan for 110 years, be eliminated or changed. In fact, no one mentioned straight-party voting – positively or negatively – in all of the hearings.
Does it, therefore, surprise you to know that the only major “election reform” bill either the House or Senate has passed since the 2000 election concerns were raised, includes a prohibition of straight-party voting in Michigan?
Sen. Alma Wheeler SMITH's (D-Salem Twp.) bill to create mail-in voting was not considered even though such a system has significantly increased thoughtful voter participation in Oregon. Rep. Nancy QUARLES' (D-Southfield) proposal to assure older voters would not have to wait in line longer than 30 minutes was defeated.
Several other election reform bills were not implemented although each had support from citizens in the public hearings held around Michigan. They include:
- “No Reason” absentee voting
- Designating Election Day as a public holiday
- Internet voting
- Election Day registration
And, of course, there were hundreds of ideas not even introduced for consideration. Just one of these that deserves consideration is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). IRV is a reform that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference, so that in cases where there is no initial majority winner, a runoff recount can be conducted without a new election to determine which candidate is actually preferred by a majority of voters. It is a simple process that replaces “winner take all” pluralities with election majorities.
We know that eliminating straight-party voting does two things – weakens political parties and roadblocks party loyalty. These achievements further damage our democratic institutional underpinnings.
The evidence that the legislative/administrative elimination of straight ticket voting was totally partisan is not hard to uncover. The Republicans supported it and the Democrats opposed it. Was this a partisan decision? Oh yes, without a serious doubt. Nolan FINLEY, Detroit News editorial editor, describes the proposal as “crassly political in motivation. The GOP resents the straight-ticket habits of die-hard Detroit Democrats and fears the practice hurts their candidates at the bottom of the ballot. ... Voting rules shouldn't be tinkered with to gain a political advantage for the ruling party.” (Detroit News, Sunday, December 16, 2001).
State Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGROW (R-Port Huron), was asked whether elimination of the straight ticket option was purely a political ploy. He answered, “Not for me, I've never liked it. Never used it. I believe voters should go through and analyze each race and make a decision based on what they know about the two candidates.” (MIRS Capitol Capsule, December 14, 2001) Let's for the moment, assume that the Senator is telling the truth. Is he telling us that he never has voted straight Republican? Is he telling us that he has never trusted his party's convention selection process to come up with candidates? Is he encouraging Republicans generally to split their tickets and include votes for Democratic candidates? Is he discouraging party loyalty? (This may help to explain why the Senator's campaign for his party's convention nomination as Attorney General was such a brief exercise.)
Those questions weren't asked him in the interview. But he was asked why the Senate decided to pursue the prohibition of straight ticket voting now. The Senator explained, “Because we control the House and we had the votes to do it. We've talked about it in the past, but the Democrats have always resisted and I think it's a good idea.” Clear enough. No more questions, Senator.
Incidentally, in the 2000 election, 78 percent of Detroit voters cast straight-ticket ballots. Apparently they desired to vote straight ticket and thought it was a good idea. The Michigan Republican leadership has just attempted to “reform” that option away from them. How does that increase voter turnout and strengthen democratic institutions?
Democracy would be strengthened by decisions that represent a serious wrestling with problems that we hold in common. Only cynicism is strengthened by decisions based on the rationale that “I think it's a good idea and we have the votes to do it.”