Primary colors

Here’s a new wrinkle on an old dilemma. When Michigan voters go to the polls in their state primary today, they can vote in either the Republican or Democratic race. But under the law setting up the primary, voters have to write down which ballot they want and that list will be given to the two state parties. See the problem?

Journalists have wrestled for years with the question of whether taking a political position in the voting booth compromises their effort to be objective on the job. Some prominent journalists like Washington Post editor Len Downie say not voting is a matter of principle:

I have not voted since becoming managing editor in 1984 because, as the final gatekeeper for all coverage in the Post, I do not want to make up my mind, even in the voting booth, about candidates or issues. I would be pleased if none of our political reporters or editors voted, but it would be unreasonable to ask for that (and I remain the final gatekeeper for all they do). We prohibit all staff members from engaging in any political activity except voting.

Most journalists don’t go that far. Voting is their right as citizens, and they believe they can exercise it in private and still be fair in their coverage. But what happens when the party they voted for could become public knowledge?

That’s what journalists in Michigan are wrestling with, and they’re coming down on different sides of the issue. Monica Scott is an editorial writer for the Grand Rapids News Press:

I am not worried about being outed. I respect journalists who have professional concerns. However, I feel strongly about exercising my right to vote whenever I have the opportunity. Too many have sacrificed for me to be able to cast my ballot.

But one of the paper’s political reporters, Ted Roelofs, will stay home.

I don’t plan to vote. It might compromise people’s perception of my objectivity.

The Michigan case is unusual, and there’s a specific circumstance that may make the journalists’ decisions easier. Most Democratic candidates are boycotting the primary because the state moved it to January. But the situation is still worth discussing. What would you do under similar circumstances? What would you do if the ballot list were not going to be shared with anyone?

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