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Michigan primary has long history of quirkiness

Published November 26, 2007

LANSING (AP) - The process of choosing a presidential favorite has led Michigan down many different paths since it held its first presidential primary in 1916.

The state last held open Republican and Democratic primaries in 1976, a year that saw former Michigan Rep. Gerald Ford easily win the GOP race over Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter beat Morris Udall on the Democratic side in an election that drew 1.8 million voters.

Four years earlier, Alabama Gov. George Wallace won the Democratic primary, easily beating George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey and prompting Democratic complaints that Republican voters had crossed over to vote for Wallace to embarrass them.

Partly because of such incidents, national Democratic rules changed after the 1976 election, and state Democratic parties had to find a way to require voters to state a party allegiance before they could participate in a presidential primary.

In 1988, lawmakers passed a new law under which voters had to declare a party preference with their local clerks before they could vote in the presidential primary.

Although 1.1 million people participated in the 1992 election won by Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George Bush, the 18 percent turnout rate among registered voters was less than half that in 1972 and 1976.

Even worse, Michigan voters were incensed they had to declare a party preference and that the knowledge was public information. The outcry forced lawmakers to drop the party preference declaration in 1995.

Democrats went back to nominating their favorites through party caucuses, while Republicans continued to hold open primaries. The national front-runner, Bob Dole, easily won the 1996 GOP primary. But underdog John McCain beat out eventual nominee George W. Bush in 2000, in part because Democrats crossed over to vote in the GOP primary.

This year, Democratic and Republican party leaders hit on a different strategy.

Instead of requiring each voter to declare a party preference that could be seen at the local clerk's office, they decided anyone could vote in either primary as long as election workers wrote down which party's ballot a voter chose and gave that information to the state parties. No public record of which ballot was chosen would be kept.

State GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis and Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer said the requirement would reduce the number of voters who might cross party lines to meddle in the other party's election. They also said the provision would keep a voter's neighbors or others from being able to find out which ballot a voter had chosen while increasing turnout to more than 2 million.

That's far more than the roughly 5,000 Republicans who would choose their favorites at a presidential convention, or the 160,000 Democrats who voted in party caucuses in 2004.

But the idea hasn't been a hit with everyone.

East Lansing political consultant Mark Grebner and several other people filed a lawsuit because they were unhappy that the Michigan Democratic and Republican parties will keep track of voters' names and whether they took a Democratic or GOP primary ballot but gives no public access to that information.

Grebner said the knowledge is worth $5 million to $10 million and argued that access to it should be equal for everyone because it is information obtained through a publicly funded election.

"We're not anti-election. We're really just anti-corrupt giveaway," he said.

But the Michigan Supreme Court didn't buy that argument, issuing an opinion Wednesday that allows the primary to go forward.

Many election clerks aren't happy with the ruling. The Michigan Association of County Clerks wanted the primary dropped because, with less than 60 days to go before Jan. 15, it will be difficult to guarantee that absentee voters such as military members serving overseas, the elderly and the disabled will be able to apply for ballots and return them in time.

Absentee voters must ask for a Republican or Democratic ballot, then wait for the ballot to arrive. The high volume of holiday mail means some voters might be unable to complete a ballot by deadline.

The clerks' association and some Democratic lawmakers also argued that it's a waste of money to spend at least $10 million on the primary, especially since four of the Democratic candidates have taken their names off the ballot because Michigan violated party rules by making itself one of the earliest states on the primary calendar.

They think the political parties should have stuck to their party caucuses or conventions and picked up the tab.

There's also a concern that voters will stay away from the polls because they don't want to give the parties a record of which ballot they took, either for privacy reasons or because they don't want to receive the political mailings that are sure to come.

At this point, however, it looks like the new version of the Michigan presidential primary will go on as scheduled Jan. 15.