Our voting system needs repair

Jan 29, 2014

This is an election year, and if you haven’t noticed, you'll soon be engulfed by an inescapable tidal wave of advertising that will make that clear. Last night’s State of the Union speech was, in one sense, a campaign platform.

So were all of the various Republican responses. We’ve seen precious little bipartisan cooperation in Washington or in Lansing these last few years, and unless the martians invade, you can probably count on even less this year.

But regardless of your politics, there is one area in which we need to cooperate to make changes. Not in for whom we vote, but in the mechanics of how we vote.

Many people in Michigan end up not voting because they don’t have the time to wait in line. Unlike many other states, including Ohio, we have no early voting, nor do we have no-fault absentee voting. Voters have to be over 60, out of town, incapacitated or just plain lie to get an absentee ballot. Not surprisingly, that makes for long lines.

And the dirty little truth is that most people who do stand in line to vote do so, to some extent, irresponsibly. Ballots today tend to be very long, with so many candidates and complex proposals.

Too many voters either skip races, vote “no” on any proposals they don’t understand, or vote for familiar-sounding names, whether they know anything about the candidates or not.

Well, there’s a new bipartisan national report on how elections are run in this country, and Chris Thomas, who has been Michigan's elections director for decades, was part of the committee that wrote it and sent it to the president.

Now, a report on election administration probably doesn’t sound exciting.

But there are few things sexier than time and money, and the recommendations in this report are designed to save people both.

The report makes it clear that everyone would benefit if we had a system of early voting, where voters could show up and cast a ballot before Election Day.

Now, there are some potential drawbacks. If people vote too early, they might choose before some last-minute revelation or policy shift that might have changed their decision.

But significant developments seldom happen in the last week or so of any campaign. In any event, Thomas told the Gongwer News Service, it is clear that early voting makes running elections much easier for both officials and voters.

Additionally, there are now 19 states that allow online registration. And while some of us old-timers instinctively distrust cyber anything, this report indicates it may actually provide more security safeguards than registration by mail.

We don’t know yet how Secretary of State Ruth Johnson will react to these recommendations. But in the past, the real problem with voting reform has been the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Republicans do better when the turnout is smaller. Secretary Johnson has been in favor of allowing anyone to have an absentee ballot who wants one, no questions asked.

But her fellow Republicans have refused. Bipartisan election reform is badly needed, as anyone who has ever waited in line at the polls should know. But sadly, my advice is: Don’t hold your breath.