and the life of a county clerk
Giving Voters More Choices. Last night, an Ann Arbor activist challenged my commitment to an open process with regard to ballot access for parties and proposals. Here's some of what I told him, and some subsequent thoughts on the subject.
My interest in these issues is one of the reasons I'm a candidate for County Clerk and Register of Deeds. The county clerk is the lead local election official and has a significant influence over the whole process both directly and indirectly.
I have always been opposed to laws which make it unduly difficult for new parties or independent candidates to obtain a place on the ballot. In the 1970s, I was strongly opposed to the so-called McCollough Act, which imposed such a high standard on small parties that all were eliminated from the Michigan ballot in 1978. (Eventually it was struck down by the Michigan Supreme Court: Socialist Workers Party v. Secretary of State, 412 Mich. 571, 317 N.W.2d 1 (1982).)
In the 1990s, I assisted the Green Party in its challenge to Michigan's prohibition of local political parties; only statewide parties can be listed on the ballot. The Green Party (which at the time had ample local support, but not enough to get on the ballot statewide) challenged this in court. I prepared evidence showing the abrupt decline in the number of candidates in the early 1960s, when the no-local-parties rule was suddenly imposed on Michigan village governments. Many villages had active and ongoing competition between local parties with names like "Citizens" and "Independent"; this active politics often vanished when candidates could only run as Democrats and Republicans. (Michigan didn't have any provision for independent candidates in partisan elections until forced to by court decisions in the 1980s.)
Recall elections have something of a bad reputation among educated and liberal folks, but I don't see why this should be. Obviously a drive to recall officials from office creates conflict and bad feelings, can be motivated by very short term considerations such as unpopular tax hikes, and can lead to decisionmaking in low-turnout special elections. On the other hand, not all of these things are necessarily characteristic of recalls: for example, the California gubernatorial recall generated plenty of interest and voter turnout.
Uneasiness with recalls has led to the enactment of a number of legal limits on the recall power. In Michigan, recall organizers now have to submit petition language (stating the reasons for the recall) to an election commission to determine if it is sufficiently "clear". I think some have abused this "clarity" proceeding to delay and frustrate recalls.
Indeed, not just in recalls, it is tempting to politicos (especially entrenched insiders) to abuse the process to deny their adversaries access to the ballot. In New York, with perhaps the nation's worst election law, it is routine for candidates and parties to go to court over petition technicalities to get opponents thrown off the ballot; many elections are effectively decided by judges and lawyers based on the degree of precise adherence to a law which is full of absurdly intricate requirements not seen in other states.
Unfortunately, due to the short-term interests of specific politicos, Michigan has moved in New York's direction. In 1986, a number of candidates affiliated with Lyndon LaRouche filed to run for Congress as Democrats. Efforts by lawyers for the Democratic Party to expunge the LaRouche names from the primary ballot were successful, and created some awful precedents for severe scrutiny of petition details.
Of course, the temptation to fraud in petition circulation is strong, and no one should be allowed to obtain ballot access through identity theft or forgery. However, a diligent and attentive clerk's office has the tools to detect and act on this.
I believe in representative democracy, but in general I don't think that blocking or withholding choices from the electorate is constructive. I do admit that there are specific areas where other considerations take precedence (at least among my personal priorities) over offering maximum choices.
One of those issues is the death penalty. In 1846, Michigan was the first English speaking jurisdiction to abolish the death penalty. I think this was a wise move; the availability of capital punishment is, I think, corrosive to a polity. But over the last thirty years, there have been numerous efforts to bring the death penalty back to Michigan, either via the Legislature or through a petition drive. Polls usually show that a majority of Michigan voters are inclined to vote in favor of the death penalty; hence opponents, including myself, fear seeing it on the ballot.
That being said, even in the case of the death penalty, if the advocates collected enough signatures or enough support in both houses of the Legislature to force a vote, they would be entitled to that vote; we opponents would have to make our case to the people. And perhaps we would prevail.
Similar concerns arise in the current case of the amendment to ban affirmative action in Michigan.
Another kind of limitation on electoral choice which I support is the rule in most states, including Michigan, which prohibits candidates from running on multiple party tickets. I was very relieved when the Supreme Court, in the Timmons decision, declined to strike down the rule and extend the "fusion" system to all states.
Of course it sounds like an appealing idea. Advocates point to New York State, where one candidate might be nominated by the Republican, Conservative, and Right-To-Life parties, while his opponent might run on the Democratic, Liberal, and Working Families lines. And obviously each of these parties (and more) would be able to coalesce in different combinations or run their own candidates if they chose to. The ability for these groups to give or withhold electoral support, and hence advance their agenda, would seem like a hallmark of democracy.
Unfortunately, it doesn't really work that way, even in New York where the small parties are well established, and it was even worse in Pennsylvania and California, when those states allowed it.
The problem with the ability of parties to cross-endorse is that it creates a political culture of interparty dealmaking — leaving the voters out. Incumbents in this system often manage to obtain both major party endorsements, which insulates them from effective accountability and makes the election irrelevant. For example, Richard Nixon, hardly a consensus figure, won re-election to Congress in 1948 as both a Republican and a Democrat.
I lived and voted in New York State for two years. It is remarkable how little democracy happens there, and what meager choices voters get. I was appalled at how few incumbents faced any effective opposition.
I feel similarly about proportional representation schemes which attempt to emulate European models for fair distribution of seats in legislative bodies. The problem is that the unitary elected presidency and the Electoral College has hardwired the two-party system into our political culture. Any electoral scheme that doesn't take this reality into account will lead to unintended bad consequences: it will insulate officeholders from the electorate, reward strategic voting, or create perverse incentives for parties and candidates.
However, there is one innovative voting scheme which holds a lot of promise for improving elections: Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).
IRV is already used in many organizational elections, such as for the presidency of the American Psychological Association and the choice of winners for science fiction's Hugo award.
The basic premise is that each voter may rank his or her choices from 1 to however many. Only the "1" counts as a vote initially; a candidate who wins a majority of the 1st-place votes is the winner. However, if no candidate wins a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and his or her votes are redistributed based on the second choices of the voters. Repeat until one candidate has a majority.
There are some limitations to this approach. It would work well in high visibility single positions (with multiple viable candidates), not so well in multi-seat races. It obviously would encourage small parties, but it would not change the fundamental two-party reality of our system; in a two-candidate race, it would make no difference at all. And it requires some rethinking of appropriate election technology.
Ann Arbor once, briefly, had IRV for mayoral elections. A group of people has proposed amending the charter to bring it back. From their announcement:
A group of us, originally spurred by the Huron Valley Greens, have been planning an Instant Runoff Voting campaign in Ann Arbor for a long time. We are kicking off this exciting campaign at 7:00pm, Monday, March 22, at Leopold Bros on S. Main St. Our goal is to collect sufficient petition signatures from Ann Arbor registered voters to put the question of enacting Instant Runoff Voting for future city elections on the November 2004 ballot.
See also the A2IRV web site.
Update. Year of Nixon's bipartisan re-election corrected. Thanks to Greg Hlatky for the catch.
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments
Ink. A brief item about my campaign appeared in the Ann Arbor News today: Democrat seeks clerk's post held by the GOP for 70 years.
The Ann Arbor lawyer and curator of the Political Graveyard Internet site has recently ramped up his grassroots campaign by making public appearances in recent weeks in preparation for a tough race against entrenched Republican incumbent Peggy Haines.
Rather than criticize Haines, whom he said he likes and respects, Kestenbaum plans to run a positive campaign that focuses on providing an alternative and his knack with computers and archiving information.
The unexpected line "'Madman' in the Fold" (shortly after that paragraph) refers not to me or to my opponent, but to Ted Nugent, featured in a following story.
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments
Brief notes from the last several days:
....Posted by Lawrence Kestenbaum — Comments
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