Michigan elections: Standing room only

Christopher Thomas, left, retired Michigan Director of Elections and a St. Joseph resident, speaks with Eric Lester on Tuesday after addressing the League of Women Voters of Berrien and Cass Counties.

John Matuszak / HP Staff

STEVENSVILLE — If you think Michigan voters have to work their way through long ballots with numerous candidates and issues, it’s not your imagination.

According to Christopher Thomas, who retired last year as Michigan Director of Elections, the state has one of the longest ballots in the United States.

Thomas, addressing the League of Women Voters of Berrien and Cass county at the Lincoln Township Library on Tuesday, said that there will be a record number of candidates on the primary ballot, with congressional and state Senate and House seats up for grabs. There are no incumbents in the statewide races because of term limits.

There also are several issues expected to be on the ballot in November, from a move to eliminate prevailing wage laws for public projects to legalizing recreational marijuana, to creating an independent citizens voter redistricting commission, to an amendment to the state constitution mandating a part-time legislature.

Thomas, a St. Joseph resident, has 40 years of experience as an elections administrator. In 2013, he was appointed by President Barack Obama as a member of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which made recommendations to improve the election day experience of America’s voters.

The commission recommended a maximum 30-minute wait for citizens to cast their votes, Thomas said.

It might take Michigan voters that long to read the November ballot. Or legislators could preempt the vote by taking action themselves.

In the case of the petition drive to legalize recreational marijuana, state lawmakers have until June 5 to vote on the issue, sidelining the ballot initiative. Thomas said it would appear unlikely that a Republican-controlled legislature would give the green light to legal grass.

But some observers have speculated that having the issue on the ballot would boost Democratic turnout, and that’s something the GOP would probably prefer to prevent, he said.

Deep conspiracists have even suggested that the GOP lawmakers could approve legal pot and then repeal the measure in the lame duck session after the election, he said.

Turnout does matter in Michigan, he said. When about 3.2 million voters show up at the polls, Republicans do well, while participation above that mark favors Democrats, he said.

In 2008, the state saw the number of ballots cast go over 5 million for the first time, as Michigan supported Democrat Barack Obama for president. In the 2010 midterm elections, “Democrats were nowhere to be found,” and a Republican governor and legislature was swept into office, he said.

Another issue causing “huge consternation”is the push for the citizens redistricting commission that would end political gerrymandering of voting districts, Thomas said. If approved, it would require the Secretary of State to send out 10,000 applications for membership, selecting 30 Democrats and Republicans each, and 40 non-affiliated citizens. From those, four members of both major parties and five non-affiliated members would be chosen to draw maps that comply with eight specified rules.

Michigan’s election system is different in other ways. Thomas said that the state has one of the most decentralized operations in the country, with some 1,600 county and township jurisdictions. That number used to be larger, before school districts and villages were prohibited from running their own elections, he said, and the number of elections allowed was limited to three a year.

The office of the Michigan Director of Elections was created to provide some continuity to voter administration as secretaries of state were voted in and out of office, Thomas said. He noted that most democracies don’t elect their election officials, and instead appoint people to manage the bureaucracy.

On the issue of voter fraud, Thomas said that, in his opinion, there is no pervasive existence of cheating. President Donald Trump blamed his loss of the popular vote to fraud and illegal voting, and appointed a commission to investigate that later folded.

Thomas also said that the evidence shows that Russian interference in the 2016 was targeted to benefit Trump. Whether Trump knew about it or was involved “remains to be seen,” Thomas said.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak