Saturday, October 20, 2007

New voting requirement stirs controversy

cross-posted at Michigan Messenger

Michigan's January 15 presidential primary will be the first time since 1992 that Michigan voters will have to indicate a party preference in order to receive a ballot and vote. Experts differ in how they expect this to affect voter behavior. Some advocates think it is simply a bad idea.

Voter advocates are concerned about privacy issues and inhibiting voter participation. They also criticize using public monies for political purposes, such as collecting lists of voters' presumed party preferences. But in the context of elections, gathering such information is standard procedure.

"The Republicans are going to make out very well in this presidential primary because they will have succeeded in getting the state of Michigan to pay for their ability to collect the names of their people," says Jan BenDor, statewide coordinator for non-profit, non-partisan Michigan Election Reform Alliance. "They will finally have a perfect mailing list of who the Republicans are. The state of Michigan will spend $10 million for them to do that. They have wanted this for years."

The Democratic Party will also receive a list - voters who requested a Democratic ballot. But given the incomplete field of candidates on the ballot and the possibility of cross-over voting, the Democratic list is likely to be smaller and less informative.

University of Michigan political science professor, Michael Traugott, who specializes in campaigns and elections, agrees that one purpose of the primary is to gather names of citizens and their likely voting preference. Speaking about the motivations of political parties, Traugott says,"A lot of what they do in the caucuses and primaries with these party ballots is check on the accuracy of their lists." He says that consultants and strategists collect information from local election officials to supplement and refine existing voter lists.

"What they really want are names and addresses." He says that information collected in primary elections is cross referenced and statistically analyzed to arrive at what are believed to be authoritative, up-to-date address lists of likely voters for each party.

According to Tom Frazier, legislative liaison with the Michigan Township Association, the Secretary of State's Bureau of Elections will be creating a form for all clerks to use on election day with a box to check whether a voter wants a Republican ballot or a Democratic ballot.

"They aren't declaring what their party preference is, only declaring they want to vote in the Republican primary or the Democratic primary," says Frazier. "This is different than the last time this came about, which was the presidential election in 1992, where people did have to formally declare their party preference before being given a ballot."

The League of Women Voters of Michigan is squarely opposed to "any procedures that require voters to name a party in order to cast a vote," says Jessica Reiser, president of the group. The League contends that such procedures at the time of voting inhibit voter participation.

Traugott concurs, but thinks the actual number of voters turned off by such a procedure will be small and that privacy issues don't really apply. "Registration and voting records have always been public. But in these special circumstances they can record which ballot you requested and that would become part of the record," he says. "It is an act of freewill and they don't know who you voted for. Some small proportion of voters won't come to the polls because of it."