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
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
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
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
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.