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Having to declare a party upsets some voters, clerks say

February 08, 2012 - Some local voters are pretty upset about Michigan's Feb. 28 presidential primary, but it's not who's on the ballot that's got them riled up, it's what they must do in order to vote.

The upcoming election is what's called a closed primary, which means in order to participate in it, each voter must declare, in writing, a political party preference – either Republican or Democrat – before receiving a ballot containing that party's candidates.

"Many people are upset that they have to declare a party," said Addison Township Clerk Pauline Bennett. "Many of the residents feel that it's an invasion of their privacy."

Bennett noted she's already heard complaints from about 20 folks who had planned to vote via absentee ballot.

At least one Addison resident indicated he's choosing not to vote in the primary because of this requirement, according to the clerk. Others told her they intended to complain directly to the state.

"I would imagine on Election Day there will be more people who will voice their objections," Bennett said.

Oxford Township Clerk Curtis Wright indicated his office has received similar complaints.

"There has been a portion of people that have either responded by phone or (written) statements on their (absentee ballot) application voicing their displeasure at having to declare a party preference to get a ballot," he said. "There are some people who are not very happy."

Renee Wilson, deputy clerk for Oxford Township, estimated the department's received a handful of complaints.

"We had one guy return (the absentee application) that refused (to choose a party)," she said. "We have to mail the forms back to anybody that doesn't (check) a box with a letter explaining why. We had one couple send a letter in (stating) that they thought we were impeding their right to vote.

"A few people have come to the counter (at the township office), but after we explained it to them, they picked (a party ballot) and they were no longer upset. They just didn't understand why."

Bennett stressed that voters should not blame their local clerks' departments for the closed primary.

"This is how the parties chose to hold their primary," she said.

The idea behind the closed primary is to discourage crossover voters from interfering in another party's choice for nominee.

In the 2000 Michigan presidential primary, Republicans claimed that Democrats crossed party lines to give John McCain a victory over George W. Bush. This led the GOP to close its Michigan primary in 2008.

When asked for her opinion of the whole situation, Bennett said, "I personally don't have a problem selecting which ballot style I want, but I truly understand why you shouldn't be mandated to do so."

Wright had mixed feelings about the party declaration requirement and whether or not it's an invasion of privacy.

"I don't necessarily agree with it, but in a way, I don't have a problem with it because it gives you the option to decide 1) if you want to participate in the election and 2) which party you want, which isn't necessarily the party you support," he said.

"Just because you request a certain ballot doesn't mean that's the party you're partial to. You could be a Republican and request a Democratic ballot."

Wright said he understands the primary ballot's main function is help a political party "narrow down" its field of candidates, so it's natural to want only party members voting in the election.

What bothers Bennett is the fact that each and every voter's request for a Republican or Democratic ballot will be a matter of public record for 22 months after the primary, meaning it's accessible through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

"That part upsets me more than declaring which ballot style I want," she said. "That part to me is an invasion of privacy."

Keeping the voting records accessible to the public would give both parties the opportunity to cull through all the names to find potentially sympathetic voters, who mostly likely would then be subjected to solicitations for campaign contributions and support at the ballot box.

A total of 11 candidates will appear on the Republican primary ballot, even though four of them have officially suspended their campaigns for the White House.

GOP candidates still in the race include Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson, Fred Karger and Buddy Roemer.

Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and John Huntsman are the GOP candidates who quit the race, but still appear on the Michigan ballot.

Even though the Democrats will officially select President Barack Obama as their candidate in a May 5 caucus, they can still participate in the Michigan primary by requesting a Democratic ballot.

Obama's name is the only one that appears on it. Votes for Obama in the primary will not affect the outcome of the Democratic caucus.

Bennett noted for those voters who do not wish to choose any of the listed candidates there is an "uncommitted" option on both the Republican and Democratic ballots.

When asked her prediction concerning voter-turnout on Feb. 28, Bennett replied, "I think because the Republican nomination has yet to be decided, Michigan might be busy. It's kind of getting clearer (who might be the nominee), but it's yet to be definitive."

Locally, Bennett predicts about 30 percent (or approximately 1,350) of Addison's voters will participate in the upcoming presidential primary.

"I would like to see at least 50 percent," she noted.

As for Oxford, Wright said, "I would say if there's over 20 percent that's probably a favorable turnout. I'm thinking we could hit that."

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