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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Thu, 11/10/2016 - 9:52am
How about we take this to the ultimate end point and make all elections non-partisan? Vote for the people, not the party!
Mark s
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 10:01am
I am in total agreement with this proposal. To add my two cents: I have been asked, in my sphere, if I would consider running for an office. I have declined because, I am a Democrat and our county votes Republican from top to bottom, and because in my professional dealing I want to remain open to both sides.
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 1:08pm
This would be helpful in many races. In West Bloomfield Township this August the township clerk was defeated by 66 votes in low turn out, and while over 500 ballots were spoiled by absentee voters who crossed over parties and did not even realize their votes did not count. This change should be the standard for all elections in our great state!
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 1:41pm
I would definitely support this! There are some positions that should not be partisan. People would be elected based on their credentials rather than the party.
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 2:05pm
My city's (30,000 Pop.) City Council is all run as non-partisan and it seems to work very well. As you asked why should this be limited to only small communities? If a community wants to run their elections this way (non-partisan) why should the state interfere? Please correct me if I'm wrong but I've never noticed where in the constitution political parties are required? While on the subject, why is Register if Deeds, or County Clerk or Drain Commissioner, the various lower judges, Etc Etc elected position at all? What does political party have to do with these functions? Do voters really have a clue why one verses another? I don't! Why not let County Commissioners hire and fire for these positions? Very few voters know, care or would miss voting for these positions. They just want the job done.
Fred Stonehouse
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 3:48pm
I fully support this measure and suggest it be expanded to include all county offices too! Partisanship by design has no place in county offices and frankly neither does it have a place in any office. Folks should be focused on the job at hand, not cheap political include our "best legislature money can buy."
Thu, 11/10/2016 - 4:39pm
Why even elect many of these positions in the first place? Many municipal governments hire and fire professional city managers, who select department heads, with managers and department heads often chosen after statewide or national searches for qualified applicants. With elected department heads, counties are limited to their residents.
Jim pratt
Fri, 11/11/2016 - 10:56am
Totally agree - but not just small counties- everywhere should do this. As a federal employee, I legally cannot run for a partisan position- so today my only option is running for school board. I would love to see more positions in the non-partisan world.
David L Richards
Fri, 11/11/2016 - 6:15pm
I am in total agreement. County issues are more administrative than ideological. Having county (or municipal) offices partisan makes cooperation more difficult, precludes qualified individuals from office because they are the wrong party, and sometimes, as happened in Macomb County on Tuesday, elects someone absolutely unqualified just because they are members of a party whose presidential candidate is strong in that county. County administration would be much smoother if stark partisanship was left out. People still have their party connections, but not having partisan primaries or having party designation on the ballot would minimize unnecessary conflict.
Barry Visel
Sat, 11/12/2016 - 10:06am
All elections should be open. If political parties want closed elections they should pay for them. I would add a default 'none of the above' to the ballot just to insure voters have good choices. If NOTA wins, then start over with new candidates. At the national level, remember we are a Republic, not a majority rule democracy. Political parties seem to have forgotten this truth. I would support open elections at all levels of government.
Steven Martin
Sun, 11/13/2016 - 7:32pm
Extend the proposal to Townsip offices as well.
Mon, 11/14/2016 - 11:06am
Hell, Get rid of townships totally! There're nothing but an anachronism from horse and buggy days!
Michael Schichtel
Sun, 11/13/2016 - 9:53pm
I like the idea. School boards are elected that way.
Mon, 11/14/2016 - 10:41am
Some other states have gone to top two primary election systems for some offices.
Wed, 01/04/2017 - 10:20pm

I wholly support this bill. I have noticed some very qualified individuals don't run for office because one party or the other has total control of the electorate (as long as a person belongs to my favorite party I vote for them). This often leaves the voters with less than the best qualified person for some elected positions.If this works in small counties I would support expanding it to give all counties in the state.Even though I don't live in a county that qualifies to use this approach because of size - I intend to contact my representative and urge they vote on this.