Election FAQs: What to know before you vote

(WOOD file)

Ballot language can be confusing, especially when there are a number of different types of ballot issues in one election. Below, we break down the basics and offer explanations on terminology.

When/How do I vote?

Michigan holds elections three times a year — in May, August and November. Election day always falls on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of the month. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every election day.

Registered voters can also vote absentee if certain criteria are met. By law, local clerk’s offices will be open the Saturday before an election for absentee voters.

When you go to the polls you will be asked to show ID. Michigan law requires voters to show ID but allows those without ID to sign an affidavit instead. The person will then be allowed to cast a ballot just like everyone else.

Types of Elections

Primary elections are used to narrow the list of candidates, usually down to two, who will move on to the general election. Primary elections are held in August, and general elections are held in November.

In some communities, like Grand Rapids, if a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in a primary election, they win the seat without needing a vote in November.

Presidential primary elections are a little different. These are run by the Democrat and Republican parties and are intended to let the members of the party choose their preferred candidate.

Michigan does not have party registration, so you can vote in whichever primary you choose — but you can only vote in one — so you have to decide ahead of time. Other parties, like the Green or Libertarian parties, nominate their candidates at party conventions.

There are also elections in May, which usually focus on school bonds and local ballot issues.

Common Ballot Issues

Millage requests:

Millages help fund local and county governments and schools. Your millage rate is part of what determines how much you pay in property taxes. Your property tax bill is calculated by multiplying your millage rate by the taxable value of your home. One mill is equal to $1 of tax for every $1,000 in taxable value of your home’s worth. The taxable value is usually half of your home’s value.

For example:

  • Your home is worth (would sell for) $200,000. The taxable value would be $100,000.
  • Your city is asking voters to approve a millage of 1 mill (1 mill = .001, which is 1/1000 of $1)
  • (1 mill) 0.001 x $100,000 = $100

So the new millage would cost this homeowner $100 a year in taxes if approved.

This is just one example of a millage. Your tax bill includes several different millages for things like schools, counties, parks, libraries and streets. Each millage runs for a certain period of time. When one expires it will either go away or voters are asked to approve a millage renewal to continue that millage for another period of time.

School Elections

There are several different types of school proposals that can appear on a ballot.

Bond Proposal:

Bond Proposals are when a school asks voters to let the school district sell bonds to finance improvements to school facilities. This often includes a new or renovated school, athletic facilities, technology and busses. The school district’s millage rate will go up to pay off these bonds over time.

Building and Site Sinking Fund:

Building and site sinking funds are small millage requests (3 mills or smaller) that create a fund that schools can use for building construction, renovations and repairs. The money is collected and used as property taxes are paid, so there is no borrowing involved. Schools often use these funds for things like a new roof or boiler. It can also be used for security and technology upgrades.

So how do building and site sinking funds and bond proposals differ?

Think of building and site sinking funds like a debit card. You can only use the money you currently have in your bank account and no overdrafts are allowed. Bond proposals are like a credit card. You borrow the money to use now, then pay it off over time.

Operating Millage:

Nearly every school district has an operating millage. Operating millages can be as high as 18 mills and often make up a large piece of a school district’s budget. The millage is assessed on businesses, rental properties and vacation homes, but not on a person’s primary residence.

Regional Enhancement Millage:

Regional enhancement millages are run through a county’s intermediate school district and provide extra money to every school district in the ISD.

The millage of up to 3 mills is assessed on every home in the county, and the money is divided up based on each school district’s student population. Districts with more students get more money.

Unlike bond proposals or building and site sinking funds, the money from regional enhancement millages go directly into the school budget and schools can use them however they want.