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December 4, 2020

Michigan’s Long Ballot May Leave Voters in the Dark – Thankfully There are Organizations to Shed Some Light

In a nutshell:

  • Voters in Michigan face a very long ballot and are asked to weigh in on numerous federal, state and local races, as well as state and local ballot proposals. This leads to voter drop-off, as well as voting by party or simply guessing.
  • Michigan’s election of judges and many statewide officials gives it a longer ballot than other states that rely more on appointed positions.
  • The long ballot asks a lot of people to be informed voters, but voters have options out there to find information on candidates and ballot proposals – these include nonpartisan organizations and news sources that provide information every election cycle.

The Board of State Canvassers certified Michigan election results on November 24, after divisive presidential and U.S. Senate races. Certification paved the way for the Michigan delegates to the Electoral College, under state law, to award the state’s 16 electoral votes to the popular vote winner, President-elect Joe Biden. While public attention, both during and after the election, largely focused on these top-of-the-ticket races, the reality is that voters were asked to choose candidates for a litany of offices at the federal, state and local levels.

As has been tradition in Michigan, the November 2020 general election presented voters with a very long ballot. According to a Research Council report, Michigan voters fill more than 19,000 state and local offices through elections. Additionally, many voters are confronted with a host of local ballot questions, in addition to any statewide proposals that make the ballot.

A long ballot is something that can lead to voter fatigue and voter drop-off. It is the belief of the Citizens Research Council that Michiganders are asked to vote on too many offices and on too many issues. The long and complicated ballot makes voting unnecessarily difficult and tedious. 

Photo credit: Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

When confronted with the long ballot, what do Michigan voters do? Do they stop voting after the top of the ticket? Do they choose candidates based on party affiliation? Do they guess? Or do they take the time to educate themselves about all candidates for office and all questions they will be asked to weigh in on? The answer is a little bit of all those things.

Voter drop-off

It is estimated that in an average election, 25 percent or more of voters do not make it to the judicial races which appear at the bottom of the ballot.

A quick look at November 3 election results in two Michigan counties (Ottawa and Oakland) shows the extent of voter drop-off. The table below shows votes for any candidate in judicial and other statewide or county races compared to total votes cast for Presidential candidates. Voter drop-off starts immediately with one to two percent points fewer votes cast for U.S. Senate and Congress than for President. The gap grows further down the ballot. The percentage of voters selecting two justices for the Michigan Supreme Court was less than 70 percent of the presidential vote in both counties, and dropped even further for Court of Appeal judges. These are not insignificant races.

Table: Vote Percentages in Ottawa and Oakland Counties

Ottawa CountyOakland County
Total Votes% of Total Votes for PresTotal Votes% of Total Votes for Pres
President/VP168,713100.0771,991100.0
Senate167,70199.4764,00299.0
Congress166,88298.9755,22597.8
State Representatives (multiple districts)163,23796.8745,06096.5
State Board of Education (2 seats)313,64793.01,409,37191.3
UM-Regents (2 seats)306,90391.01,382,21689.5
County Prosecuting Attorney121,30871.9724,22693.8
County Commissioners (multiple districts)128,04275.9719,78093.2
Supreme Court
(2 seats)
232,35068.91,040,54267.4
Court of Appeals
(2 seats)
175,59452.0734,79747.6
Proposal 2020-1153,75691.1690,23689.4
Note: This table does not include all races voted on in each county. For races with multiple seats being selected, the total vote was divided by the number of seats.

Vote by party or guess

For those that do vote, some take the time to educate themselves on all the races, but that can be a big task and many vote by party or simply guess. A recent opinion piece by Nolan Finley of the Detroit News talked about the importance of judicial races and admonished people not to just guess at these races. A poll released in October 2020 found that more than 60 percent of voters that had cast their votes early could not remember who they picked for Supreme Court Justice.

In his article, Finley states that Supreme Court justices wield as much influence as any other elected officials in Michigan, and their careful selection is important. As is the selection of local judges and officials – local politics isn’t flashy, but it’s consequential. Local officials are making decisions that can directly affect our daily lives.

Studies have found that in the absence of information, voters make decisions based on candidates’ names, gender, ethnicity, and sometimes even their position on the ballot (i.e., how far down their name is placed).

What do other states do?

One of the things that contributes to Michigan’s long ballot is our practice of electing members to the eight-person state board of education and to the governing boards of the state’s three flagship universities. This is unique – Michigan is one of 11 states that elects state school board members and one of the only states that enumerates specific higher education institutions in its Constitution and their governance methods (election by state voters).

The selection of judges across the states is complicated. Michigan is one of eight states that selects judges in partisan elections. The rest of the states follow some form of nonpartisan elections, appointment, or commission-based selection.

Few states have as long of a ballot as Michigan. There are reasons that Michigan elects its education and governing boards (such as autonomy for these boards and institutions) and there is no clear best way to select judges. However, alleging that the autonomy of these institutions is rooted in the independent election of the school board members or judges is diminished when one-third to one-half of the participating voters do not take the time to choose a candidate.

Options for voter education

Unless things change drastically in Michigan (they likely will not), many voters will continue to face the long ballot and all the challenges of educating themselves about candidates and proposals. Of course, straight ticket voting by party is an option historically available to Michiganders and often used by many voters. For those that don’t choose this option, there may seem to be a dearth of information sources. Luckily, there are organizations out there to help voters. 

To begin with, one should look for nonpartisan sources of election information. The Citizens Research Council offers nonpartisan, unbiased analyses of all statewide ballot issues. Voters simply need to visit our website to find reports, summaries, blogs, and podcasts about current statewide ballot issues.

When looking for information on candidates, local proposals, and/or tax questions, look to organizations such as the League of Women Voters and BallotReady.org, as well as local and state news organizations. Another option, is to look at endorsements from organizations that share your beliefs and/or policy platforms.

Conclusion

Michigan did not come by its long ballot on accident; the propensity to rely on elections instead of appointment is lodged in Jacksonian democracy, which advanced the concept that the problem with government was the appointive status of government officials. The cure proposed was to have as many officials as possible elected directly to short terms. This approach to governance keeps democracy close to the people, but it also asks a lot of the people to be informed voters.

Voters are expected to make a concerted effort to learn about candidates for office: What do they hope to accomplish? How do they plan to make our nation, state, universities, counties, cities, townships, community colleges, school districts, or other governmental entities better? Voters are also expected to actively monitor the decisions and actions of those already in office. This is not an easy thing to do – it requires a robust media and active participation. Difficult is not impossible though, and some might say that part of the privilege of voting includes a responsibility to educate yourself.

“The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about.”
Lent Upson, 1st director of Citizens Research Council

Research Associate

About The Author

Jill Roof

Research Associate

Michigan’s Long Ballot May Leave Voters in the Dark – Thankfully There are Organizations to Shed Some Light

In a nutshell:

  • Voters in Michigan face a very long ballot and are asked to weigh in on numerous federal, state and local races, as well as state and local ballot proposals. This leads to voter drop-off, as well as voting by party or simply guessing.
  • Michigan’s election of judges and many statewide officials gives it a longer ballot than other states that rely more on appointed positions.
  • The long ballot asks a lot of people to be informed voters, but voters have options out there to find information on candidates and ballot proposals – these include nonpartisan organizations and news sources that provide information every election cycle.

The Board of State Canvassers certified Michigan election results on November 24, after divisive presidential and U.S. Senate races. Certification paved the way for the Michigan delegates to the Electoral College, under state law, to award the state’s 16 electoral votes to the popular vote winner, President-elect Joe Biden. While public attention, both during and after the election, largely focused on these top-of-the-ticket races, the reality is that voters were asked to choose candidates for a litany of offices at the federal, state and local levels.

As has been tradition in Michigan, the November 2020 general election presented voters with a very long ballot. According to a Research Council report, Michigan voters fill more than 19,000 state and local offices through elections. Additionally, many voters are confronted with a host of local ballot questions, in addition to any statewide proposals that make the ballot.

A long ballot is something that can lead to voter fatigue and voter drop-off. It is the belief of the Citizens Research Council that Michiganders are asked to vote on too many offices and on too many issues. The long and complicated ballot makes voting unnecessarily difficult and tedious. 

Photo credit: Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

When confronted with the long ballot, what do Michigan voters do? Do they stop voting after the top of the ticket? Do they choose candidates based on party affiliation? Do they guess? Or do they take the time to educate themselves about all candidates for office and all questions they will be asked to weigh in on? The answer is a little bit of all those things.

Voter drop-off

It is estimated that in an average election, 25 percent or more of voters do not make it to the judicial races which appear at the bottom of the ballot.

A quick look at November 3 election results in two Michigan counties (Ottawa and Oakland) shows the extent of voter drop-off. The table below shows votes for any candidate in judicial and other statewide or county races compared to total votes cast for Presidential candidates. Voter drop-off starts immediately with one to two percent points fewer votes cast for U.S. Senate and Congress than for President. The gap grows further down the ballot. The percentage of voters selecting two justices for the Michigan Supreme Court was less than 70 percent of the presidential vote in both counties, and dropped even further for Court of Appeal judges. These are not insignificant races.

Table: Vote Percentages in Ottawa and Oakland Counties

Ottawa CountyOakland County
Total Votes% of Total Votes for PresTotal Votes% of Total Votes for Pres
President/VP168,713100.0771,991100.0
Senate167,70199.4764,00299.0
Congress166,88298.9755,22597.8
State Representatives (multiple districts)163,23796.8745,06096.5
State Board of Education (2 seats)313,64793.01,409,37191.3
UM-Regents (2 seats)306,90391.01,382,21689.5
County Prosecuting Attorney121,30871.9724,22693.8
County Commissioners (multiple districts)128,04275.9719,78093.2
Supreme Court
(2 seats)
232,35068.91,040,54267.4
Court of Appeals
(2 seats)
175,59452.0734,79747.6
Proposal 2020-1153,75691.1690,23689.4
Note: This table does not include all races voted on in each county. For races with multiple seats being selected, the total vote was divided by the number of seats.

Vote by party or guess

For those that do vote, some take the time to educate themselves on all the races, but that can be a big task and many vote by party or simply guess. A recent opinion piece by Nolan Finley of the Detroit News talked about the importance of judicial races and admonished people not to just guess at these races. A poll released in October 2020 found that more than 60 percent of voters that had cast their votes early could not remember who they picked for Supreme Court Justice.

In his article, Finley states that Supreme Court justices wield as much influence as any other elected officials in Michigan, and their careful selection is important. As is the selection of local judges and officials – local politics isn’t flashy, but it’s consequential. Local officials are making decisions that can directly affect our daily lives.

Studies have found that in the absence of information, voters make decisions based on candidates’ names, gender, ethnicity, and sometimes even their position on the ballot (i.e., how far down their name is placed).

What do other states do?

One of the things that contributes to Michigan’s long ballot is our practice of electing members to the eight-person state board of education and to the governing boards of the state’s three flagship universities. This is unique – Michigan is one of 11 states that elects state school board members and one of the only states that enumerates specific higher education institutions in its Constitution and their governance methods (election by state voters).

The selection of judges across the states is complicated. Michigan is one of eight states that selects judges in partisan elections. The rest of the states follow some form of nonpartisan elections, appointment, or commission-based selection.

Few states have as long of a ballot as Michigan. There are reasons that Michigan elects its education and governing boards (such as autonomy for these boards and institutions) and there is no clear best way to select judges. However, alleging that the autonomy of these institutions is rooted in the independent election of the school board members or judges is diminished when one-third to one-half of the participating voters do not take the time to choose a candidate.

Options for voter education

Unless things change drastically in Michigan (they likely will not), many voters will continue to face the long ballot and all the challenges of educating themselves about candidates and proposals. Of course, straight ticket voting by party is an option historically available to Michiganders and often used by many voters. For those that don’t choose this option, there may seem to be a dearth of information sources. Luckily, there are organizations out there to help voters. 

To begin with, one should look for nonpartisan sources of election information. The Citizens Research Council offers nonpartisan, unbiased analyses of all statewide ballot issues. Voters simply need to visit our website to find reports, summaries, blogs, and podcasts about current statewide ballot issues.

When looking for information on candidates, local proposals, and/or tax questions, look to organizations such as the League of Women Voters and BallotReady.org, as well as local and state news organizations. Another option, is to look at endorsements from organizations that share your beliefs and/or policy platforms.

Conclusion

Michigan did not come by its long ballot on accident; the propensity to rely on elections instead of appointment is lodged in Jacksonian democracy, which advanced the concept that the problem with government was the appointive status of government officials. The cure proposed was to have as many officials as possible elected directly to short terms. This approach to governance keeps democracy close to the people, but it also asks a lot of the people to be informed voters.

Voters are expected to make a concerted effort to learn about candidates for office: What do they hope to accomplish? How do they plan to make our nation, state, universities, counties, cities, townships, community colleges, school districts, or other governmental entities better? Voters are also expected to actively monitor the decisions and actions of those already in office. This is not an easy thing to do – it requires a robust media and active participation. Difficult is not impossible though, and some might say that part of the privilege of voting includes a responsibility to educate yourself.

“The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about.”
Lent Upson, 1st director of Citizens Research Council

Stay informed of new research published and other Citizens Research Council news.

Select list(s) to subscribe to


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: . You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact
Research Associate

About The Author

Jill Roof

Research Associate

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