But there are races and candidates on this year’s ballot that even I know virtually nothing about. For example, I live in Oakland County.
County residents elect the members of the governing board of Oakland Community College, which is a highly important institution. It has five campuses and seventy-seven thousand students. My problem was that I didn’t feel qualified to vote here. I knew absolutely nothing about any of the candidates for the board. By the way, I always get a sample ballot for precisely this reason. I know there will be some things and people I need to research.
This time I called someone I know whose judgment I trust who served on the Oakland Community College board. She helped me make informed choices.
But how many people have the connections to do that? Those who do tend to vote in these races tend to go for familiar-sounding names like O’Brien and Kelly. For a statewide example, voters also elect members of the state board of education, the governing boards of Michigan’s three major universities, Wayne State, Michigan State, and the University of Michigan.
But those candidates aren’t chosen by education experts. The Republican and Democratic parties pick them. How does the average restaurant manager in Grand Rapids or factory worker in Flint figure out who to vote for? Many don’t even try. Many people who split their tickets don’t vote in these races at all.
But here’s what happens: If you vote a straight ticket, Republican or Democratic, it records votes for either party’s university board nominees.
Two years ago, more people cast straight-party votes for the Democrats, and their nominees won. Twelve years ago, when Governor John Engler won by a landslide, more people voted the straight Republican ticket, and all their school board nominees except one beat the Democrats.
The only Democrat survivor that year had the magic last name of Kelly. This year, each party has one seat at stake on the Michigan Supreme Court.
Two incumbent justices, one from each party, are running for re-election. Being on the court already is in itself a huge advantage. That’s because it says right there on the ballot that the candidate is an incumbent Supreme Court justice.
The challengers might as well be labeled, “Brand X.” The Republicans really want to defeat the newest Democratic Justice, Alton Davis.
So how do they plan to overcome the huge advantage being an incumbent gives him? One guess. That’s right. They nominated a challenger named Mary Beth Kelly. Incidentally, if you can’t name the justices on our state’s highest court, you aren’t alone. Rick Snyder, the Republican nominee for governor, was asked on television if he knew who the chief justice was. He said he didn’t know how to pronounce their name.
Their name happens to be, by the way, Marilyn Kelly. I suppose this way of choosing people for these important but lesser-profile jobs may seem like a good idea if you are an ambitious politician named Kelly.
But the rest of us might want to think about whether this system, which was established by the current state constitution, is really working for us.