by Craig Ruff, President

This Advisor proposes a dramatic shortening of Michigan’s ballot.

Fifteen years ago I was working for James H. Brickley—then lieutenant governor and now chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. Prone to imagining more responsive democratic structures, Brickley spearheaded a petition drive that year to amend the Michigan Constitution: He sought to shorten the Michigan ballot, which is the longest in the United States.

The Brickley plan would have lopped off the ballot the candidates for 24 university board seats, the state supreme court, court of appeals, and the State Board of Education, making them all appointees of the governor. The effort failed.

Changing how we select policymakers makes considerable sense. Michigan’s ballot is way too long; it’s fatiguing and frustrating, and moreover, this “bed sheet” ballot obscures the more important public offices such as governor, legislator, and members of Congress.

Eventually every good idea gets resurrected. Why not now?

University Boards

Highly profiled athletic imbroglios, presidential searches and departures, diversity and affirmative-action policies, and state appropriations politics have renewed interest in the way in which university board members are selected.

The Michigan Constitution requires the eight-member boards of the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Michigan State University to be elected statewide. Each member serves an eight-year term, with two members of each board being elected in November of even-numbered years. Candidates are nominated by political parties, and on the ballot their partisan label—Democratic, Republican, or other—is indicated. State Board of Education seats are filled the same way.

Members of the University of Michigan Board of Regents have been elected since 1850; prior to that, they were appointed first by the legislature and later by the governor. Since 1862, the board has numbered eight. Members of Michigan State’s Board of Trustees were named by the gubernatorial-appointed State Board of Agriculture until 1908; from then until 1964, six members of the board, each with a 6-year term, were elected statewide. The 1963 state constitution increased the number to eight and the terms to eight years.

Wayne State University was created as a state institution in 1956, and originally, members of its Board of Governors were representatives of the Detroit Board of Education, University of Michigan, State Board of Agriculture, Executive Office of the Governor, and State Board of Education. In a special vote in the 1961 spring election, six WSU governors were elected statewide, to staggered six-year terms. The 1963 constitution expanded the board to eight members, with eight-year terms, elected statewide in general elections.

The last time I checked, of 59 university board members elected in all the nation, 24 are in Michigan. In 1994, for the two positions to be elected to each of the “big three” boards, seven people ran for MSU trustee, eight for U of M regent, and six for Wayne State governor. Eight ran for the two seats on the State Board of Education. These 29 people represented the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Workers World, and Natural Law parties. The number vying was no anomaly—on the 1992 statewide ballot there had been 31 candidates for these posts.

People argue that statewide-elected education boards assure autonomy, protect intellectual freedom, and insulate members from political pressure. In the case of the “big three” universities, I am not sure how faculty members’ intellectual freedom is faring, but I am pretty certain that given the clamor of recent controversies, board members enjoy neither autonomy nor insulation from politics.

A good case can be made that university boards should pay heed directly to the electorate. Currently, because they do report directly to voters rather than the governor, members can better resist strong-arming by the chief executive. The current governor’s crusade for university-chartered public school academies has tested and strained the stamina of members of both elected and appointed university boards. Moreover, under an appointive system, a governor of strong will can more easily bore into and manipulate university policies, with nary a sentimental nod to the centuries-old, deliberative, process-bound traditions of these schools.

This presents us with a predicament: Can we evaluate the individual and collective performance of appointed versus elected boards and conclude that one type is better than the other? I think not. There are first-class minds and even temperaments on both; so, too, do both have some second-class minds and dysfunctional behavior. The occasional goofiness of appointed boards is less apparent, because their institutions rarely command the statewide media and public attention of U of M, Wayne State, and MSU.

With the exception of “name” candidates, aspirants to the university boards (and the State Board of Education, discussed below) largely are strangers to voters, and no one’s position on the relevant issues is much known. This does not make elected board members inherently poor policymakers, only anonymous ones. Since they are largely anonymous, voters hardly can hold them individually and electorally accountable for what goes right or wrong in education. In reality, the governor gets the credit or blame for what plays out on campuses (and state government). Hence, why elect board members?

The perception of anonymity may come as a surprise to Larry Owen, Joel Ferguson, Dean Pridgeon, Melanie Reinhold, George Bashara, and Neal Nielsen—all are recently defeated incumbents. A small percentage of voters may have sized up each and unearthed something offensive, but in truth, political party fortunes and electoral bias toward women had far more than anything else to do with their defeat.

Women do better than men in education elections (see the table on the next page). The former comprise 29 percent of the members of all appointed university boards and 46 percent of the elected ones. In the last three elections, we have seen 16 contests for education boards in which the same political party nominated a woman and a man for the two openings. Removing partisanship from the electoral equation, women are 16 for 16 in besting their male running mates, even when the partner was an incumbent like Joel Ferguson, Gumecindo Salas, or a well-known political figure like former congressmen Bob Traxler and Marvin Esch. On average, women run 158,125 votes ahead of their male counterparts.

Among elected education leaders, no doubt some think twice about casting a vote one way or another lest they hurt their reelection chances. More often, however, I suspect they fret about how their party’s nominating convention or power brokers will read their actions.

It is no secret that for years the leader of the AFL-CIO largely controlled the Democrats’ nominating processes. If he slated you, you got nominated. Today, if John Engler wants you off a board, rest assured that the Republicans will not renominate you. Although in November neither organized labor nor a governor can control the balloting, in August they at least anoint the nominees.

Since politics is about the art of the possible, how about a compromise between elective and appointive university governing boards?

I propose that starting in 2002, and reaching beyond Governor Engler’s term-limited eligibility to be governor, every two years we elect one person to an eight-year term on each of the “big three” university boards. This produces four elected members on each. Allow the governor to appoint five other members, as the terms of the elected members expire, with staggered terms of eight years each, and subject the nominations to advice and consent by the state Senate. Having a ninth member assures against senseless deadlocks. Restrict the governor to appointing no more than three persons of the same political party.

By having four of nine members elected, no governor—even one who serves two full terms—can exercise undue control over the autonomous universities. Yet the process gives the chief executive greater influence over higher education policy, for which s/he will be assessed. The eight-year terms do insulate education leaders, elected and appointed, from both legislative and executive intrusions of the moment. And perhaps with only one seat up for grabs on each board, rather than two, voters will pay more attention to candidates’ qualifications and positions, and so may party nominating conventions.

The Brickley plan proposed appointment of all university boards, but the stature, tradition, and necessary autonomy of the “big three” lend themselves to blended accountability—to the governor and all voters. Hence, a sharing of appointment and election makes considerable sense.

I also am intrigued by University of Michigan President James Duderstadt’s preference for a Board of Regents comprising eight elected members, eight appointed by the governor, and eight representatives of university alumni. Conceptually, the voters remain at the table, the governor is given an ability to provide balance and exercise leadership, and the university’s family of graduates—past customers, prime contributors, and selfless cheerleaders—emerges with a new and vigorous role in championing, developing, and guiding their alma mater. The Duderstadt concept enlarges the board, to accommodate, far better than can an eight- or nine-person board, the diversity of interests essential to contemporary governance. A larger board spreads interests and reduces the risk of one or two people dominating the board’s agenda. Finally, such a plan acknowledges the ever-increasing financial role of alums.

State Board of Education

Members of the State Board of Education have been elected since 1850. I propose we eliminate the board entirely and let the governor name the state school superintendent (one of the board’s current responsibilities). Every gubernatorial election puts the hot light on K–12 finance and policy; it is not as if the education views of the winning gubernatorial candidate are unknown. Give the governor the span of control needed to fulfill his/her campaign promises. This makes sense particularly in light of recent proposed school code changes that cede greater power to local school districts and diminish the state Department of Education’s responsibilities. (One can only imagine the incoherence of education policy today had in 1994 Howard Wolpe won the chief executive’s chair, along with Republicans Clark Durant and Sharon Wise winning their state board seats. We would have spent the year asking “What was the voters’ mandate?”)

I’ve never known a gubernatorial or state legislative campaign that did not stimulate a rich public discussion of schools. Jim Blanchard lost the governorship in 1990 at least in part because he exercised too little rather than too much leadership on K–12 finance. John Engler’s landslide victory in 1994 can be credited largely to his reform of school finance. Legislators know that there are few topics that attract more passionate crowds than K–12. Matters of choice, charter schools, MEAP scores, and teacher tenure are familiar to most voters.

The superintendent of public instruction was selected by voters from 1850 to 1964, but the 1963 state constitution removed that office—along with the state treasurer, state auditor, and highway commissioner—from the ballot. It is folly to pretend that a governor doesn’t try to influence (some would say meddle in) board of education decisions and state K–12 policy; why not let it happen and then hold his/her feet to the fire?

Courts

I suggest that we start removing supreme court and court of appeals candidates from the ballot in 2002 but give voters the opportunity to retain or reject appointees at the election a couple of years following their appointment and every so often thereafter; this concept is precisely what Brickley proposed in 1980.

Under this plan, a bipartisan judicial nominating commission screens candidates for vacancies on the supreme court and court of appeals. The commission submits to the governor three nominees, the governor appoints one of the three, and the appointment is subject to confirmation by the state Senate. After two years on the bench, a justice or judge faces voters, who say yes or no to the question, Shall Justice (or Judge) _________ of the supreme court (or court of appeals) be retained in office? If a plurality votes no, the officeholder vacates the office and is ineligible for appointment to that vacancy. Incumbents face a retention vote at the expiration of their current term.

I propose that the judicial nominating commission comprise nine members appointed by governor, and not more than five may be members of the same political party. Each serves a term of three years, with appointments expiring at staggered times. At least four of the commission’s nine members should be attorneys, and, to assure geographic balance, there should be at least one member from each of the state’s four court of appeals districts.

Michigan’s highest judges would achieve their posts through careful, bipartisan screening, gubernatorial review of qualifications and appointment, and Senate review and confirmation. They then would keep their seats if voters, having weighed their performance, approve. It would end the “name game” and clutter on the state ballot. It would end the inane system of nominating supreme court candidates at partisan conventions and then pretending the nominees are nonpartisan when they show up on the November ballot.

The appointment and retention plan proposed by Brickley for the high courts eventually could be expanded to include the circuit, probate, district, and recorders benches as well; no one except local attorneys and neighbors ever knows these candidates either.

Beyond the Personality of the Governor

Governor Engler likes the idea of moving toward gubernatorial appointments at least at the “big three” universities. However, Democrats are loathe to give a Republican governor appointing power, just as Republicans would have opposed the notion had Democrat James Blanchard led such a charge when he was in office. Understandably, partisans size up the benefits of appointment versus election based upon who, representing what political party, would gain the most today. By moving toward appointive offices, starting in 2002, bipartisan support is easier to obtain.

Would We Run the County as We Run Michigan?

Brickley liked to tell people that to run the federal government, with a budget now of $1.5 trillion, voters choose five people: the president, vice president, two U.S. senators, and one U.S. representative. To run Michigan, with a budget of $29 billion, voters have to choose 73 people—the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, 32 education board members, 7 supreme court justices, 28 judges on the court of appeals, one state senator and one state representative.

Nothing would be gained by submitting candidates for the U.S. Supreme Court to voter consideration. Aside from Justice Clarence Thomas, no federal supreme is identifiable to more than 20 percent of Americans. Several years ago a national poll found that Judge Wopner, of television’s People’s Court, was far better known to Americans than any Supreme Court justice.

Imagine candidates for the highest bench in the land or the court of appeals in Cincinnati scrambling for PAC money, handing out emery boards at football games, blowing up balloons at Fourth of July parades, begging for nomination at the Democratic or Republican national conventions, and putting 15-second sound bites on talk radio. Such a system would be demeaning to the person and embarrassing to the citizenry, who would like to think that those charged with interpreting the law of the land are above that, yet we inflict it on state judges.

How ironic, you say, to suggest, in a representative form of government, that we take a step away from directly choosing all our representatives! I submit, however, that it is even more ironic to continue the charade of holding accountable people we cannot even identify by name, let alone by position, philosophy, past actions, or future promises, and to do so as we watch the descent in citizen trust of government and elected officials. But the point that my system would diminish voters’ opportunity to exercise their inherent right to have a direct say in all who hold office is an important one. The response to this concern can be seen in the fundamentally disturbing fact—which is at least somewhat related to our long, taxing ballot in Michigan—that we don’t vote. Compare the 45 percent turnout in Michigan’s 1994 election to the 93 percent turnout in Quebec’s October 30 oui or non referendum on secession. Since the majority of us seem not to care enough to vote anyway, why not have people who do care and will pay attention to the offices and the issues relieve us of the burden of playing Russian roulette at the ballot?

Conclusion

My proposed reforms strip close to 40 names off every state election ballot, eliminating 55 contested offices overall. This leaves us with a sensible, streamlined ballot. It conserves state voters’ scarce attention for the dominant policy-making posts of our democracy: the governor and legislature. It places the policy buck squarely on the desks of the most prominent and accountable elected officials.

The reforms still leave voters with a say, albeit reduced, in how universities are governed, provides the governor the tools needed to make a difference in both higher-education and K–12 policy, and gives the people another compelling means by which to hold their chief executive accountable. Democracy suffers when contumacious behavior on an education board can be gotten away with because of the election process; the sole purpose of an election, after all, is to have the public will reflected in government decisions.

The reforms elevate the Michigan judiciary, inherently and prudently the least democratic branch of American government, from the mire of elective politics. We do not want political committees, lobbyists, special interests, campaign contributors, and political party organizations influencing decisions over property and civil rights, the administration of justice, and the settlement of disputes.

The reforms also shorten the ballot. I know the question of a shorter versus a longer ballot does not elicit the public emotion of such lightning rods as abortion, affirmative action, parochiaid, civil rights, or crime, but I hope it’s not too rational to be taken seriously.

Reforming democratic institutions does not exactly tug at the public’s heartstrings; Brickley found that out when he tried unsuccessfully to gather 300,000 signatures for his proposal. But in 1980 the Brickley concept was a great idea, and it still is.

Copyright © 1995

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