Many people don't spend much time figuring out for whom to vote in local races. Some folks simply vote for the county commissioner or township supervisor whose name they recognize. Even state offices such as Secretary of State, Attorney General, or State Supreme Court rarely receive the attention they deserve. Asking someone about university trustees or regents is more likely to get you a blank stare than an answer.
I asked some friends how they choose. Their answers variously shocked and saddened. Some said they just don't vote for those offices, a few said they decide how to vote from the top of the ticket and voted straight party from there. One person admitted she voted for the candidate whose name she liked best.
Given the large impact on our day-to-day lives these offices and seats often have, they deserve much more consideration than we are willing to give.
Some examples of why we need to inform ourselves, after the jump.
Take, for instance, your local county commission; here, in Kalamazoo County, a strong Chairman helped to push through an amended employment non-discrimination policy that included SOGIE provisions. In another battle, Democrats on the commission formed a coalition to battle a group of conservatives who wanted to roll back insurance coverage for reproductive care. These same conservatives prevented passage of a resolution honoring a local public servant and activist, publicly stating, it was "Improper to officially honor a known homosexual," adding "Honoring Terry Kuseske publicly condones immorality." WTF?
Please, find out who these candidates are and where they stand. I could only shake my head upon hearing an endorsement for one candidate which claimed "(so and so)... is the right person for county commission because he is a real pro-life Christian, anti-Pelosi conservative who cares about traditional marriage and will vote his values." Huh? What does Nancy Pelosi have to do with a county commission race in Kalamazoo, Michigan? For that matter, what does being a "Christian" actually have to do with effective government?
Michigan's Secretary of State is another good example of why so-called "low information" races deserve attention. Here, the Secretary of State has power over a variety of state policies that wouldn't immediately come to mind.
Ruth Johnson, Republican candidate in Michigan's Secretary of State contest is currently clerk of Oakland County and a former member of the State House of Representatives. In 2002, the state's largest LGBT equality organization, Triangle Foundation, endorsed her candidacy. Amid infighting for her party's nomination, Johnson found it expedient to not only deny that she had ever received Triangle's nod, but deemed it wise to out-crazy her closest competitor for the nomination, State Representative Paul Scott. Scott made minor headlines by announcing one of his top priorities would be to deny gender marker changes on state ID's and drivers licenses to transpeople. He asserted transpeople were changing these official documents in order to commit voter fraud and identity theft.
It isn't surprising that Johnson changed her position on equality issues, she was considered for lieutenant governor as Dick DeVos' running mate in 2006. DeVos is a billionaire whose family founded Amway Corporation. His wife, Betsy, is a former Republican National Committee member, former chairperson of the Michigan Republican Party and sister of Blackwater founder, Erik Prince. Her father, Edgar Prince co-founded the anti, gay Family Research Council. DeVos' money supports the gay and trans-hating American Family Association. Gary Glenn, transphobic president of AFA Michigan has endorsed Johnson and issued public statements concerning the gender marker issue.
Johnson's opponent, Democratic candidate Jocelyn Benson, is well-schooled in public policy having cut her teeth at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Benson quickly went on the record that she thought this was nonsense, and, furthermore, she would work to remove roadblocks for transgender people. I had the opportunity to ask her about this issue personally when she campaigned in Kalamazoo three weeks ago. It was refreshing to hear her not only stand by that position in front of voters and the press but to amplify it adding, "It's my job to help, not hinder, transgender people match their documents to their authentic selves." I believe her.
Election oversight is a primary function of the Secretary of State office, ensuring that the process is carried out fairly and that everyone has an opportunity to exercise his or her right to vote. With only sixteen days before Election Day, Robert Jones, Democrat in the race for Michigan's senate 20th, passed away. Jones had a stellar reputation and was much loved by Kalamazooans. Ahead slightly in the polls at the time of his death over socially conservative Republican Tonya Shuitmaker, Jones quite possibly could have "flipped" this seat to Democrat for the first time since 1916.
Kalamazoo's sitting mayor, Bobby Hopewell, stepped into the contest and despite the short time available to retool the campaign, Hopewell has a chance to prevail. However, just over half of the 14,000 absentee ballots requested in that district have already been returned. Current Secretary of State, Republican Terri Lynn Land, ruled that only those ballots cast in favor of Bob Jones would be void. Rough number-crunching suggested this gave Schuitmaker an automatic 3,000-vote advantage.
Land went further, telling the State Board of Elections and the County Clerks to cease pro-actively contacting voters to inform them that their vote may not count or advising them of how to obtain a corrected ballot. In a letter, she asserted that media coverage was sufficient to inform voters. Community leaders and social justice groups quickly registered official objections.
As spokesperson for Kalamazoo Alliance for Equality, I delivered the following statement at a press conference last Tuesday.
We are fortunate. We live in a democracy and that means, we - all of us - as citizens, are afforded certain rights. One of these, and perhaps the most fundamental to democracy, is the Right to Vote. Not only is this right fundamental to democracy, it is a component essential for equality in our society.
Kalamazoo Alliance for Equality is dedicated to education, advocacy and action on behalf of our area's citizens for fairness and equality. Moreover, whenever our brother and sister's right to fair and equal treatment becomes threatened- deliberately or otherwise, Kalamazoo Alliance for Equality is compelled to speak out - and to act.
Such is the case today. The passing of Representative Robert Jones, candidate for Michigan State Senate 20th district, creates circumstances that threaten to disenfranchise a group of citizens from their right to vote. This group is Absentee Voters.
Absentee voters already face special challenges to having their voices heard. Having their ability to vote further constrained by the Secretary of State's extraordinary decision not to respond pro-actively on their behalf is especially concerning.
Given the short time for absentee voters to become aware of the change affecting their ballot, relying casually on media coverage to inform these voters is irresponsible at best. Furthermore, expecting voters to become aware that their vote may not count - and then expecting them to navigate the additional obstacles of requesting, obtaining, and returning a new absentee ballot within the necessary window and short time available is unrealistic. Additionally, taking the unprecedented step of directing the clerks of Kalamazoo and VanBuren counties to cease efforts at contacting absentee voters demonstrates poor judgment.
It is incumbent on the Secretary of State that she makes available any and all resources at her disposal to fulfill the highest charge of her office; ensuring the election process is carried out legally, ethically and fairly.
Therefore, Kalamazoo Alliance for Equality is today, calling on Terri Lynn Land, Michigan's Secretary of State to reverse her decision and instead formulate a reasonable process by which all voters in Michigan may avail themselves of their right to vote. The State Board of Elections should be directed to carry out it's responsibilities and ensure that the citizens of Michigan have not only been given ample opportunity to vote but, can be certain their vote will be counted, for the candidate it was intended.
A massive, citizen-driven effort to "recapture" absentee ballots is underway. Sunday morning the Kalamazoo Gazette editorial board published an op-ed criticizing the Secretary of State's handling of the situation.
Related only incidentally, Representative Schuitmaker, the Republican candidate who stands to benefit from this absentee ballot mess, served as vice-chair of the State House Judiciary Committee. In that capacity, she blocked many of late Representative Jones' initiatives including the SOGIE inclusive amendments to Michigan's Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, "Matt's Law" (safe schools anti-bullying), and hate crimes legislation.
State Attorneys General, obviously, exercise a good deal of power. This office formulates policy on how to enforce not only state laws, but also how to approach enforcement of federal statute within their respective state. A good example of this might be what is happening in Michigan with regard to medical Marijuana. Michigan voters approved a ballot measure legalizing the medical use of marijuana in 2008. However, the Attorney General's office has remained silent over continued prosecution of clinic operators on possession charges. Much like the Obama administration and DADT, the AG has a choice about how vigorously to pursue these issues.
Assistant Michigan Attorney General, Andrew Shirvell got more than his fifteen minute of fame when he exposed his near psychotic homophobia on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 this September. He has been smacked with personal protection orders, barred from the University of Michigan campus, and is facing a disbarment hearing and an administrative review.
Shirvell launched a one-man hate and smear campaign against Chris Armstrong, openly gay University of Michigan Student Assembly President. According to Shirvell, Armstrong was "promoting the homosexual lifestyle." This apparently upset Shirvell a great deal and led him to launch a Facebook hate page and allegedly harass, stalk and menace Armstrong. Shirvell, on personal leave from his post, will face review when he returns, but calls for his firing have gone unheeded by Attorney General Mike Cox. Cox, who could fire him for "conduct unbecoming a state employee," has defended Mr. Shirvell's right to freedom of speech. To his credit, AG Cox did call his subordinate an "immature bully."
The above is the "sexy," sensational Attorney General story. The substantive story resides with the shared political agenda of Michigan's current AG and that of his possible successor.
There was a considerable splash made by the collective Attorneys General of some twenty states immediately following passage of the Health Care Reform Act. Unconstitutional! these high-ranking law enforcement officers shouted in unison. Mike Cox was number two after Florida's AG to jump on the bandwagon, purportedly to protect their state's citizens from the unconscionable overreaching of President Obama.
The Attorney General is your state's highest-ranking law enforcement officer. If there is anything unconscionable happening with regard to "Obamacare," it is the use of a powerful post to forward a political agenda. During his tenure as AG, Mike Cox has consistently used his position to undermine progressive legislation. An Attorney General should not pick and choose his battles based on his or her politics. Thank goodness Cox's hold on the position is ending. Voters rejected his bid to become governor when he failed to garner the republican nomination in the primaries last August. His possible successor, Republican Bill Schutte, may be worse.
I watched in jaw-dropping amazement as Schutte shamelessly lay out his agenda during a television interview with a local political reporter. He repeatedly slammed Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm for admonishing Cox to cease his politicking and pursuit of the challenge to health care reform. What was Schutte's objection? "The AG post is independent of the Governor's office and cannot bow to political pressure from there or the outside." Almost before he had finished the previous statement, he began politicking of his own, stating, "I will work side-by side with our new governor [assuming it will be Republican Rick Snyder] to overturn the last two years of encroachment on state's rights by the Obama administration.[...] Together, we will fight Obamacare and any other threat to our state's sovereignty." I wonder if Snyder has ever had a lap dog?
Is it too much to ask that these and other offices be free of partisan politics and personal ideology? Yes. Particularly in today's spin-driven, sound-bite propagating, hyper-partisan media environment. How then, do we make a difference? By gleaning all we can about the candidates. What is their voting record? What can I deduce from public statements about a hopeful's willingness to perform in elected office without personal bias?
Our right and responsibility to vote are fundamental to democracy. The well-informed voter is essential to good government.