LANSING, Mich. -- Here's something about the November election you may not realize: If Michigan voters go to the polls, get in the voting booth, and study the ballot carefully before they make the best decision possible, the whole system will break down.
It might take every voter a half hour, at least, to sort out the vast number of candidates, races, and ballot proposals. Depending on how many signatures the various campaigns collect, Michigan voters could be asked to decide on four, eight, or more complex proposed laws and state constitutional amendments.
Most voters will go to the polls knowing that they want either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney to be president. They'll probably have made their choices for U.S. Senate and House too.
But what about their local sheriff, county clerk, and treasurer? There are positions that voters in some counties will have to decide. What about local and state judges?
Voters may -- or may not -- have an idea about their member of the state House. But how about community college trustees? District judges? Members of the boards of trustees of Michigan's three largest public universities?
Add to that the ballot proposals. The likeliest is a union-driven proposed constitutional amendment that would prevent government from tampering with collective-bargaining rights for either private-sector or public-sector unions.
Depending on how courts rule, there may be a measure that would repeal Michigan's tough emergency manager law. That would have a major and largely unknown effects on cities and school districts that are under managers' control.
Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel Moroun is paying canvassers to gather signatures to try to amend the Michigan Constitution to prevent any new Detroit River bridge from being built without a statewide popular vote.
How do voters make intelligent, informed choices about all of these issues and candidates in a few moments in a voting booth?
They don't, because they can't. Many voters either skip several of the proposals and the less-visible races, or make uninformed guesses. Voters often select candidates for judge with familiar or judicial-sounding last names, which is why so many judges are named Kelly, Kelley, or O'Brien.
The ballot resembles nothing so much as a complex take-home college test -- except that most voters aren't allowed to take the ballot home, or vote absentee.
An Internet service, publius.org, will give you a copy of the exact ballot you'll face if you type in your ZIP Code. Few voters know it exists.
Legally, you can vote absentee in Michigan only if you are more than 60 years old, expect to be out of town on Election Day, are in jail awaiting trial or arraignment, can't physically vote without assistance, cite religious reasons, or have to work that day as an elections inspector in a polling place where you don't live.
Why not let any voter who wants an absentee ballot have one? Twenty-eight other states, including Ohio, already do this.
Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who has been pushing election reform, has said she favors what's known as "no-reason" absentee voting, as long as safeguards are in place to prevent fraud.
Her predecessor, Terri Lynn Land, also supported making absentee ballots available. But their fellow Republicans in the Legislature have been unwilling to go along.
When legislation was introduced three years ago that would have allowed expanded absentee voting, then-State Sen. Michelle McManus sniffed that it would invite "absentee voter shenanigans" by the controversial community group ACORN and others.
However, election experts in the secretary of state's office say there never has been evidence of absentee fraud -- or any other voter fraud -- in modern Michigan history.
There are no real restraints now. If voters say they are going to be out of town on Election Day, clerks routinely hand over absentee ballot applications, no questions asked.
"I always do that [ask for an absentee ballot]," a woman in her 40s named Karen told me. "You need to study this thing. I ask friends who know about different races what they think."
She is getting married and moving to Cleveland soon. She said she was happy she would no longer have to shade the truth to get an absentee ballot.
Why lawmakers would want to prevent voters from being adequately informed is a good question. With a major national election coming up, this would seem a sensible to time to legalize no-fault absentee voting. However, there seems scant chance of that.
The Legislature is about to recess for the summer. There has been little talk about expanding ballot access.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.
Contact him at: email@example.com