Commentary: Is this vote necessary?

Oct 16, 2012

Odds are that when you vote three weeks from now, you’ll be voting for some of the people I am about to name:  Michael Busuito, a plastic surgeon from Troy.  Lupe Ramos-Montigny. Todd Courser and Melanie Kurdys. Melanie Foster and Brian Mosallam. Satish Jasti and Shauna Ryder Diggs. She‘s a dermatologist, by the way, from Grosse Pointe.

I‘ll bet you didn‘t know that, but don’t feel bad. Neither did I, until I looked it up this morning. I‘d also bet that you probably haven‘t heard of most or all of those people either, right?

Again, don’t feel bad; I write about this stuff for a living, and I hadn‘t heard of more than half these folks. Yet millions of Michiganders are going to vote for them, and place the winners in very sensitive and important decision-making jobs.

Even though the vast majority of the voters won‘t have heard of them either. Well, if you know what the folks I just named are running for, you can move on to the final round immediately.

But if not, I‘ll now reveal the secret. They, together with a bunch of other folks whose names you wouldn‘t know either, are candidates for the regents or trustees or board of governors who run Michigan‘s three major universities, or for the State Board of Education.

Every two years, we elect members of these boards. They serve eight year terms, which are staggered, so we never elect them all at once. They are expected to be unselfish watchdogs over the most important educational institutions in the state.

They are the people who hire and fire university presidents, approve budgets, and otherwise collectively wield significant power.

They don’t get paid to do these jobs, and beyond being of legal voting age, don’t have to show any qualifications whatsoever. Unlike many other elected positions, they are subject neither to age nor term limits. Wayne State Governor Annetta Miller is past 90.

But how are they selected to run for these offices? Simple. The Republican and Democratic Parties pick them at their annual conventions, which happen around the end of August.

The parties then stick their names on the ballot. Do they select candidates to oversee our most important educational institutions based on their qualifications? Well, maybe sometimes, but mostly not. So far as I can tell, they often select nominees primarily to “balance” their tickets, based on demographic qualifications, such as race and gender. Sometimes, they’ve nominated candidates with famous names, such as Dingell (wife of), Romney (son of.) Or former MSU football coach George Perles.

Actually, however, it doesn’t really matter much who they nominate. Here’s how these elections are determined. People who split their tickets mostly ignore these races. Whichever side has more straight-ticket votes cast generally wins all the education board spots.

That means Democrats four years ago, Republicans, two years ago. This year, we’ll have to wait and see. Generally speaking, it seems to me most of the winners do good and conscientious jobs.

But I have to wonder, is blindly electing people we’ve never heard of the best way of providing oversight for state educational institutions with multi-billion dollar budgets?

Somehow, that doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.