Politics & Prejudices
Why all Michiganders should be able to vote absentee
Published: June 27, 2012
Two years ago, I committed election fraud, in a manner of speaking. Under our medieval election laws, you pretty much have to pretend you will be out of town to get an absentee ballot.
For years, Oregon has sent everyone a ballot they can study, fill in, and mail back, and Washington state does now too. Most other states allow voters to request an absentee ballot, no questions asked. But not Michigan. Technically, it is illegal to take an absentee ballot except in a few cases, such as knowing you are going to be out of town. You also can have one if you are over 60, can't vote physically without help, or can't show up at the polls for religious reasons.
They also let all those nice folks who work at the polls and check your name off the list have an absentee ballot — if they are working a precinct other than the one in which they vote. Oh, and there's one other category: If you are in jail awaiting trial or arraignment.
Otherwise, you are expected to stand in line. I used to think there was nothing wrong with that. I remember waiting in 1984, proud to cast one vote Ronald Reagan wouldn't get.
Today, however, I think not voting absentee could be hazardous to the health of us all. That's because there are so many races and so much other stuff on the ballot these days. Most people will go the polls knowing whether they want Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. They'll also know if they want Sen. Debbie Stabenow, or whatever boring old white male opponent the GOP dimwittedly chooses.
But what about ... probate, circuit and district judges? Community college trustees? Members of the Michigan State University board? Look, I have covered politics and government in this state for years and years. Even I don't know some of these people or issues, and my guess is that you won't either.
So how do you manage voting, then? Our choices are:
1 Stand in the voting booth and skip some of these races.
2 Vote for names that sound nice, like Kelly, say, or O'Brien, which is how we usually choose judges in this state.
3 Or say you are going to be out of town (hey, it's always possible with space aliens on the prowl) and take that ballot home and research and study it before you vote.
That is, if you don't want to get yourself arrested the day before the election and legally vote absentee that way. One of my problems is that, in my later years, I think of myself as a citizen as much as a journalist, and want to cast informed votes.
So I thumbed my nose at this stupid rule, and took home an absentee ballot. Even then I ended up calling a woman I know who used to be a community college trustee, and pleaded for guidance on who to vote for on that particular board.
But, you might ask, why doesn't this state do like most places, and let anyone have an absentee ballot for any reason? Even Secretary of State Ruth Johnson thinks that would be a good idea, as did Terri Lynn Land, who held the job before her.
And they are both Republicans! Well, the dirty little secret is that a lot of other members of the GOP don't like it because they fear it will increase voter turnout — usually a bad thing for them — or because they hold wild conspiracy theories about voter fraud, even though that's never been an issue in our state.
Republican Michelle McManus, for example, a former state legislator and two-time loser for higher office, said two years ago that she was against "no-reason" absentee voting because she feared it would open the door to those evil ACORN volunteers swarming in to pull "absentee voter shenanigans."
Well, that's always been my biggest fear, right up there with snow bunnies from Saturn. The Legislature is filled these days with creatures like McManus, and so refuses to make absentee ballots more widely available. This year, however, I think it would be downright immoral for anyone not to vote absentee. Here's why: There may be as many as eight proposed laws and constitutional amendments on the November ballot.
They range from one repealing the emergency manager law to another protecting collective bargaining; from totally legalizing marijuana to forcing a statewide vote on any new bridges, the so-called Matty Moroun amendment.
Many of these are extremely complex and would have major impact on life as we know it. It will be important to vote on them, and to get it right — probably more important, in fact, than which party hack you send to the Legislature.
But if every voter stopped to study the ballot in the voting booth, it would take us four years to get the election over, by which time we'd be a Chinese colony.
Now it is true that you can go to Vince Keenan's wonderful website publius.org, punch in your ZIP code, and print out a sample ballot. But the vast majority of people don't know that exists, and some still aren't computer-savvy.
There is, however, a solution to all this, which came to me while I lay soaking in my morning bath of liquid mercury. If I have any religious belief, it is that it is better to be informed than ignorant. I suggest you adopt my religion and thereby feel free to request an absentee ballot for religious reasons.
> Email Jack Lessenberry