Political columnist, author, presidential speechwriter (Nixon administration) and journalist William Safire (1929-2009) defines a political power play as “the art of running roughshod over the opposition” in his Political Dictionary, an indispensable gift I received from another political junkie back in 1979.
We got a good peek at such a play in recent weeks when the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation on its way to the Michigan House that would eliminate straight-ticket or straight-party voting in general elections in the state.
Yes, I know we already voted on this very issue in 2002, following a petition drive to place straight-ticket voting on the ballot after state lawmakers eliminated through legislation the practice of straight-party voting in 2001. In fact, 60 percent of state voters opted to overturn the election law. In Oakland, 62 percent of those casting ballots voted to override what lawmakers tried to put in practice.
On the most recent push in the Michigan Senate, a number of organizations – the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, the Michigan Township Association and the NAACP – spoke out against the elimination of straight-party voting, citing valid concerns of the added time it will take to vote, which if you still go to your assigned voting place, could translate into longer lines.
But no matter. As I have said more than once in this space, the party in power – whether Republican or Democrat – will always seek out ways to consolidate power as a matter of self preservation. In this state, it happens to be the GOP.
Michigan is one of only 10 states still allowing straight-ticket voting. Legislatures across the country, both Democrat and Republican, have chosen to scrap straight-party voting, usually under the guise of forcing the electorate to make more “informed decisions” as part of their civic duty, rather than just choosing a party affiliation button at the top of the ballot.
In reality, one of the major motivating factors in Michigan is the concern in presidential election years that a strong Democrat contender for president at the top of the ticket could impact races further down the ballot. And the numbers show that Democrat straight-ticket voters usually turn out slightly heavier than GOP straight-party voters in presidential election years. In 2014, for example, an off-year (non-presidential) election, 49.09 percent of straight-party votes in Oakland went Republican, while 49.78 percent were Democrats. In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama carried Oakland County by 53.4 percent of votes cast. Among straight-party ballots cast, 45.27 percent went Republican and 53.42 percent were cast by Democrats. Since 1996 when Bill Clinton carried Oakland County, Democratic presidential candidates have been gaining strength at the ballot box, a major concern no doubt to the GOP which controls both the House and Senate, and to the powers-that-be in the full-time posts in Oakland County government.
The Republican-led Senate, however, went one step further this time around. To make this latest election change immune to a ballot box petition drive, they attached a $1 million appropriation to the bill as it passed, without going through the normal appropriation process. In Michigan, appropriations are not subject to petition referendum. The definition – pure arrogance.
The vote in the Senate was along party lines, with the exception of two Republicans who sided with Democrats on this issue. And, for the record, the bill was sponsored by Senator Marty Knollenberg, (R-Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Troy), not someone with whom I am impressed and I am told others share this view in Lansing.
While the Senate was fine tuning election law to benefit the GOP, they also made a major change that impacts the future of the Oakland County Executive's office, even though political insiders months ago dismissed as unlikely any movement on a senate bill that has now been sent to the House, which will move the election of the county executive in Oakland to non-presidential years. Assuming House members approve this, when you vote on the county executive position in the 2016 balloting, the term will only be for two years. Henceforth, we will elect the county executive to four-year terms in off-year elections, when Wayne and Macomb counties also cast ballots for their county executives.
While I would like to believe the reasoning put forth publicly by Oakland officials that the move makes sense and puts us in line with neighboring counties, I also know that GOP officials here are nervous about the growing strength of Democrats in county-wide offices, so moving to a non-presidential year on county executive increases the odds that Republicans can still hold the executive office in the county.
The immediate concern is not that incumbent Brooks Patterson cannot withstand the increasing power of Democrats at the polling places. After all, Patterson carried the Oakland County 2012 vote by 56.71 percent, with little to no campaign effort at all following a car accident that laid him up well past the election.
The most pressing issue is what happens when Brooks Patterson decides not to run again. So if he can be re-elected for a shortened two-year term next year, he could either step aside and hope a Republican can get appointed or will at least stand a better chance of being elected in 2018 in an off-year election.
The political rumor mill has it that there are four potential contenders Patterson would support, including Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett who just won a stunning write-in campaign for a third term in that city.
Backing by Patterson could keep the executive's office in the hands of the GOP, which Safire's Political Dictionary would say is an illustration of “clout.”