Citizens Research Council commentary by Eric Lupher
In a Nutshell
- Michigan uses a partisan process for nominating and electing township and county officers, in contrast to the non-partisan method used by most cities and all villages and school districts.
- Many of the services provided by townships and counties are mandatory and cannot be provided in alternative manners because of political leanings. The size and role of local government as it relates to non-mandatory services are usually driven by the size and density of the populations served.
- Reform of the township and county officer elections can improve confidence in government and participation in elections.
Here’s a reform of Michigan’s local government that many people should agree on. Let’s end the practice of electing township and county officials by political party. This practice can erode trust in government and hinder the ability of voters to participate in the selection of their elected representatives in some counties. The practice is a relic of earlier times and, arguably, not a practice many citizens would adopt if left to their own preferences.
The role of organized political parties is entrenched in the operations of the federal and state governments. In Michigan, the tentacles of the party system penetrate local government as well. The Michigan Election Law defines the qualifications and process for nominating candidates to all congressional, state, and local government offices, including township and county offices.
In the sections pertaining to the election of township supervisors, treasurers, clerks, and trustees, the law provides that candidates for office must be nominated by a political party or qualify as independent of an organized political party.
Similar language calls for the party nomination of candidates for county executives, sheriffs, clerks, treasurers, registers of deeds, prosecuting attorneys, and commissioners.
This stands in contrast to the practice home rule cities and villages have adopted for themselves when drafting their charters. These local governments almost uniformly elect city mayors, village presidents, and council members without regard to party affiliation. The Home Rule Cities Act makes nomination of city leaders by party affiliation optional and only three of Michigan’s 257 cities – Ann Arbor, Ionia, and Ypsilanti – have opted to nominate candidates for office using party affiliation. No home rule village uses party affiliation for the nomination and election of public officials.
The political parties are not involved in the nomination of candidates for offices on K-12, intermediate, or community college school board members.
The American party system has become aligned with political perspectives with the size and role of state and federal governments in economic, social welfare, and privacy issues. Officials elected to those levels of government play in representing those perspectives in their budgeting and legal activities. In the big picture, township and county officials can do little to affect their governments’ roles in those economic, welfare, or privacy issues. Several services that townships and counties provide are mandated, especially those services provided by independently elected county officials. Typically, the size or role of local governments expands for the provision of non-mandatory services in concert with the size of the populations served and the density of those populations. The party affiliation of the person holding the office responsible for those services will have little effect on what services are provided.
Townships are required to assess property for taxation, collect property taxes for themselves and on behalf of all overlapping jurisdictions, and conduct elections.
Counties are mandated to provide police protection, prosecute the cases of those accused of violating state and local laws, and provide courts. They are record keepers, recording births, deaths, marriages, name changes, and other vital information. They oversee the conduct of elections. They record land ownership and transfers. And they are required to play roles in the construction and maintenance of roads, bridges, culverts, and drains. While the activities of the prosecuting attorneys may be influenced by party affiliation, partisanship has little role in these other services.
The services these local governments may choose to engage in are no more influenced by political leanings than the mandatory services. Neither police, fire, and emergency medical services, parks and recreation programs, economic development, nor health services are provided in Republican or Democratic manners.
If government exists to manage the interaction between people, local governments are key players in this role. While the primary functions of the federal government center around trade and national defense and states are engaged in activities such as higher education, corrections, and welfare programs, citizens are most likely to consume local government services. The menu of non-mandatory services townships and counties provide has more to do with the density of population than political theories about the role of government.
This practice of partisan elections for local government offices may be furthering the erosion of the trust in government. The Pew Research Center and others have documented the antipathy voters feel about persons aligned with the party different from their own. Not only does this animosity further divide our state and nation, but voters indicate that they have less confidence in government when the opposite party is in charge. Carrying these feelings into the conduct of township and county government business can degrade the provision of administrative and ministerial tasks.
The partisan election of county officials also complicates primary elections in some parts of the state. The overall political leaning of some counties frequently favors candidates from one party. However, portions of many counties lie within state legislative and congressional districts that may favor candidates from the other party. In these cases, voters at primary elections are left in a quandary. They can have a say in advancing candidates for county offices or legislative and congressional offices to the general election (where safe district status pretty much guarantees election), but not both.
Transforming from partisan to the non-partisan nomination and election of township and county officers can simplify the processes and bring these levels of government into conformity with most cities and all villages and school districts. It can improve confidence in government in these divisive times and better enable all voters to participate in the selection of their representatives.