Political journalists on why they do—or don’t—vote in the primaries

Photo Credit: Lindsay D’Addato, Flickr

More than 2.5 million people voted in the Michigan presidential primary on Tuesday, breaking the record set in 1972, when the voting age was first lowered from 21 to 18. A similarly large turnout is expected in the high-stakes primary in neighboring Ohio on March 15. But some of the most well-informed people in both states are not casting ballots at all: political reporters.

In both states, any registered voter may decide on Election Day to vote in either party’s presidential primary. The candidate a voter backs is confidential, but, as in other states, the party ballot that they choose is not. A presidential primary vote is a record of participation in a political party—and, based on a series of conversations I had this week, that inspires a range of responses from working journalists.

For some, it’s a deal-breaker, a reason to abstain in primaries. For others, choosing not to vote amounts to disenfranchisement in service of a dubious ideal of objectivity. Still others participate selectively, casting a Democratic ballot in some years and a Republican one in others.

The choice reflects personal political values, ideas about a journalist’s role, and practical workaday considerations. Nobody I spoke with said their newsrooms barred them outright from voting in primaries, though guidelines typically restrict other forms of political participation, such as rallies, candidate donations, and petitions. But several recalled advice to be cautious.

“A few election cycles ago, one of my editors stopped short of asking us not to vote in the primary, but impressed upon us the importance of remaining objective and asked us to think about whether we wanted our names on a list that party leaders could see,” Chris Gautz, a former reporter in Michigan, wrote in a Facebook post that kicked off a lively discussion thread this week.

For Jason Barczy, managing editor of the Holland Sentinel in west Michigan, Gautz’s post was the first time he’d heard of a news organization discouraging its employees from voting in primaries.* Barczy is open about his left-leaning politics, though he voted in the Republican primary this year; for him, it isn’t much different than the years he spent as a sports reporter, when “I never hid the fact that I was a Michigan fan.”

“Yes, we’re journalists, but we’re also citizens first,” Barczy told me. “What happens in this community and this state and this country affects me like every other non-journalist.” Actively participating in the community, he said, makes him and his staff better equipped to serve the community.

At the Detroit Free Press, Nancy Kaffer now shares her political opinions in public as a columnist and editorial writer. But even when she was a reporter, Kaffer says, she voted regularly—and she doesn’t think participating in a partisan primary creates any issues.

“Objectivity and fairness are different,” Kaffer wrote on Facebook. “You can have a preference and still be fair in your reporting.”

But Rick Pluta, state capital bureau chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network, didn’t vote in the state’s presidential primary. “There’s not a hard and fast rule,” Pluta said. But, he added, “I don’t do anything that will put me on a political list.” He noted that the parties try to build detailed profiles of every voter, matching ballot choices to things like magazine subscriptions to project future behavior. “I think it’s both in my personal interest and in the interest of my employers to not be identified with any political organization.”

Once, Pluta said, he asked someone in Michigan’s Republican Party if the party looks into how reporters vote. The reply: “It wouldn’t be the first thing we’d do, but we’d get around to it,’” he recalled. “So you have to think about that.”

Chad Livengood, statehouse reporter for The Detroit News, described a similar conversation with a political operative that took place a few years ago. The operative pulled up Livengood’s voting profile on his computer—the kind that “basically rates you as far as a reliable Republican or reliable Democrat or moderate,” he said. The point wasn’t to use Livengood’s voting record against him—nobody’s done that to him “that I know of,” he said—but to demonstrate the easy availability of the information.

Livengood does vote in Michigan’s primaries, though he switches between the Democratic and Republican ballots, generally favoring whatever race is the most competitive—varied enough that “even my wife doesn’t have a real clue about who I voted for” this week, he said.

“I just don’t want to surrender my vote to be a journalist,” Livengood said. “… I’m trying to encourage democracy, and I also want to participate in democracy.”

In Michigan, voters don’t actually register with political parties (and because of a different procedure for state-level primaries, which are held on a different date from the presidential contest, there’s no record of a voter’s party ballot choice for those contests). Ohio’s rules are slightly different—the act of voting in a party primary is what registers you as a member of that party.

Chrissie Thompson, who is covering Gov. John Kasich’s presidential campaign for the Cincinnati Enquirer, says that’s part of why, once she moved to the political beat, she ceased voting in primaries. Opting out doesn’t feel like a loss to Thompson, she said, even though she is uncommonly engaged in the 2016 campaign.

“I think the primary allows members of that political party to choose who they want to be their representative, and I don’t feel like I’m part of either political party,” she said.

Thompson says her contribution to civic life comes through her reporting, which she hopes informs voters’ choices. “It’s not as if I don’t have a voice,” she said. “I’m sharing information, doing objective reporting, truth-squadding, and breaking down the dynamics of the campaign every day.”

Jim Siegel, who covers the Ohio statehouse for The Columbus Dispatch, says reporters there are “generally discouraged from voting in partisan primaries.” Siegel himself used to vote in primaries, but has since stopped.*

“I enjoyed participating in the election process and often felt I was fairly knowledgeable about the races,” he wrote in an email. As Livengood does, “I would pick the race that was the most interesting at the time, which often switched back and forth between the parties.”

In recent years, though, Siegel has abstained on primary day. “It’s not because people are going to use it to call me biased—people are happy to do that when it serves their needs, regardless of what my voter registration says.” Rather, after covering politics for 18 years, he simply doesn’t want to be affiliated with either party. At a personal level, being “independent’” has become a greater value to him. Next week, he will pick up an issues-only ballot at his precinct.

Like all the other journalists I spoke with, Siegel will continue to vote in the general election. Pluta, of the Michigan Public Radio Network, says he’s heard of journalists who don’t vote in any election at all, for fear of it giving them too much of a stake in the outcome of the stories they cover—as Len Downie, the former editor of The Washington Post, famously did. That, he says, is “taking it too far.”

* Corrections: This story originally misspelled Jim Siegel’s last name. Also, it originally misstated the title of the Holland Sentinel.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.