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State House bill takes partisanship out of some primaries

The country selected a new president-elect this week, looking with gratitude and exhaustion to the end of campaign season. As we’ve been told, and told and told and told, the U.S. hasn’t been this dug in and divided since the Civil War. Which makes a package of bills (HB 5943-45) introduced by Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, near Iron Mountain, something of an anomaly.

McBroom is proposing that small counties be permitted to make certain elected positions nonpartisan, with the top two finishers in the primary facing one another in a runoff later. It’s not a new idea, but it hasn’t been tried in Michigan, which still has closed-primary elections. Top-two primaries are seen as a way to ease partisanship by allowing all voters to choose who will advance to the general election, which discourages hard-line positions that appeal primarily to each party’s base.

That wasn’t McBroom’s motivation, as he explains in this interview, but it’s an experiment in making voting more appealing to average voters, at least in smaller, rural counties. McBroom is serving his third and final term as representative of his Upper Peninsula district, the 108th, and said he plans to run for the Michigan Senate in 2018.

Bridge: Tell us about this latest package of bills, and what it would do.

It would allow smaller-population counties in Michigan to make a determination as to whether or not to have partisan elections for county offices. There are two driving issues for me that created this idea. One is trying to understand why your county prosecutor, or registrar of deeds, or your sheriff — why should they be partisan? They’re not really in a legislating role. Their job is to enforce the laws that are out there, and to be fair and equitable, and it doesn’t seem to be necessary to be partisan.

And just from practical experience in the smaller counties, you see that there really isn’t any sort of robust party movement that you see in some of the larger counties like Oakland or Kent or Wayne. Folks oftentimes identify with a party for matters of convenience to that local area, but don’t necessarily espouse all the viewpoints of the party at the larger state or national level. And so you end up with local Democrats who are more like a state Republican, or vice versa. It just doesn’t seem to be a practical label.

The other reason that’s been really important to folks in my area is the problems we have with primaries in smaller counties. What happens is, you get four, five, six people all running for a local office on one side of the ticket, and nobody running on the other side. Voters then are faced, in the primary, (with) “OK, if I want to have a say in my local sheriff’s race, I have to vote Democrat, or I have to vote Republican. And yet, there are other larger, national races where I’d really like to have a say on the other side of the ticket as to who is going to be my party’s chosen candidate.”

And given that the sheriff is not making policy…

He doesn’t need to be partisan. A lot of times you talk to people and they don’t want to be partisan. Certainly your local prosecutor, your clerks, your township folks — up here, a lot of times you select a party because you couldn’t get elected if you were on the other side of the ticket.

I constantly have people calling, very frustrated, during primary season, saying, “You need to get rid of this so I can vote on both sides of the ticket.” And I believe that is an unattainable goal at this point. I don’t think I could ever get the legislative support, particularly from the more populated areas, to do that. This provides a way for citizens in smaller counties to have a way to get away from this problem we have. By going nonpartisan, it allows them to still vote in that local election, while at the state level, still participating in the party election that they’re concerned about.

You must know that top-two primaries are one part of what’s generally known as the political reform movement. Do you think this is something that could work in a larger county?

I don’t see why it couldn’t work, but I don’t think a lot of folks (in Wayne, Kent or a larger county) want to go down that road. They seem to like the (current) structure. But remember — my bills are permissive. They’re not mandating anyone do this, they’re allowing the counties to have that power. And so, obviously, if we removed the population threshold on my bills, it would still fall to each county whether it wanted to go nonpartisan. I wouldn’t see any harm to that, but I thought it would be easier to get the thing launched (by starting) with the small ones.

How does this relate back to your earlier proposal to expand the Freedom of Information Act to cover the governor and legislature?

The only way I see it related is tying it to several of my other government structural reform bills, such as immediate-effect reform and term-limit reform. I have a real heart for tinkering with the technical ways that our government is structured, and making them better so that people have better access to their government, so that it works in a way that makes more sense. I don’t like the fact that people think it’s working one way and it’s actually doing something different.

Government ought to be very transparent, and very easy to understand how it’s working. You shouldn’t have to have a playbook to understand what’s going on. A good civics education should (be enough).

At a time when partisanship has at times crossed over into tribalism, how has this been received?

This idea has been something I talked over with a lot of locals for about six years. There have been some false starts, and I never really ended up getting the bill launched. Finally, I said I’m running out of time in the legislature, I’m going to get an idea out there. At the very least, even if we can’t get something done this year, if I can get some other people interested in it, then there’s a bill to use as a template in the future.

Up here, it’s been very well received. My colleagues, some are very enthusiastic, some want to study it more, and people are very busy right now, with the election and campaign season. I suspect many haven’t really heard about it yet.

Is there an example of places where this has worked well?

I was not aware that any other places had prescribed anything similar. I’m aware other people are nibbling at the problem around the country, but I hadn’t heard of anybody looking to make local elections nonpartisan, it was just something that came up in conversations locally. I can’t say where exactly the idea came from, except for lots of conversations and napkin-scribblings.

Anything you want to add?

I’m open to suggestions and ideas. I’m trying to think of technical, inside-baseball fixes, to try to leave the Michigan government better-functioning than I think it is currently.

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