Michigan is divided. These 7 reforms can curb partisanship, fix government


Michigan consistently ranks among the worst states for government transparency, as records for both the governor and lawmakers are shielded from public view. (File photo)

LANSING — Riots at the U.S. Capitol as the president refused to accept an election loss. Another impeachment. More arguments over COVID-19 regulations. An open carry gun ban and erection of security fences at the Michigan Capitol. 

Fresh off one of the most partisan years ever, 2021 is off to a combative start as politicians continue to squabble and protesters plan armed demonstrations despite bipartisan calls for unity and healing. 

"To say we’re living in challenging political times is an understatement,” new Michigan House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said in his first Capitol speech to reporters. “People just don’t trust their government or their politicians.”


Michigan House Republicans on Wednesday introduced ethics policies they hope can at least begin to restore some of that trust. Reformers say it’s a baby step and several wholesale changes are needed in a state that ranks among the nation’s worst for government ethics and transparency laws.

The Republican plan would create new conflict-of-interest policies for lawmakers, prohibiting them from voting on legislation from which they or their family could benefit. A companion proposal seeks to limit runaway partisanship in “lame-duck” sessions by requiring two-thirds approval to advance legislation following even-year November elections.

Reform advocates say now is the time to consider novel ideas to reimagine politics and curb the kind of partisan polarization and fractures exposed in last week’s attacks on the democratic process.

“Part of the way to reduce partisanship is to create a system where people aren't terrified of being more bipartisan in their political career,” said Marjorie Sarbuagh-Thompson, a political science professor at Wayne State University. 

There are potential reforms that “we know can make differences,” said Matt Grossmann, a political science professor and director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. 

“But most of them are not very realistic and would not be supported by both political parties,” he said, including a wholesale shift away from the dominant two-party system.

An attempted coup is “the ultimate polarization,” said Darrell West, the vice president and director of governance studies with the Brookings Institution, a centrist public policy think tank in Washington, D.C. 

“We've reached a point where things are out of control. And we really need to think about how to redo our system so that we can actually address the problems that concern people.”

Bridge Michigan spent the past week speaking to experts about ideas large and small they say could curb bipartisanship and rebuilding trust in government. Here are the top seven.

Michigan House Speaker Jason Wentworth on Wednesday introduced transparency legislation he said would begin to restore faith in state government. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

Big idea: Top-two primaries

What if there were no party primaries that pit Republicans against Republicans and Democrats against Democrats, partisan contests that can encourage candidates to cater to the extreme wings of their party rather than court moderate voters? 

Instead, what if the two most popular candidates for any given office, regardless of their political affiliation, advanced to the general election?

The current system encourages extremists, reformers say, who win election in politically safe districts by currying favor with party loyalists in low-turnout primaries. Advocates for open primaries, which are used in a handful of states, say they curb polarization and encourage consensus. 

“Open primaries don’t eliminate all the broader partisan impulses … but when you have party primaries as step one of the electoral process, you’re virtually guaranteeing what you’ll get is a partisan process in which candidates are incentivized to relate to voters in the most partisan way, because that’s how you win,” said John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries Inc., a national nonprofit group based in New York.

Michigan technically has “open” primaries because any voter can participate in a partisan contest without registering party allegiance. But three states go much further:   California and Washington both use top-two primaries for state and congressional races, putting the top two vote-getters into the general election regardless even if they are members of the same party. Nebraska uses non-partisan primaries for state legislative races. A state, Alaska, recently approved a ballot initiative to begin open primaries in 2022.

“The evidence that we’ve seen … is that when you end party control of the primaries, all kinds of new things are possible,” said Opdycke. “All kinds of bipartisanship, interesting coalitions. Candidates that develop electoral strategies based on bridge building and assembling unusual groupings of voters become possible.”

Reality check: There’s an “exploratory effort” among some activists in Michigan, but no formal proposal in the Legislature or by potential ballot groups, Opdycke said.

Critics contend top-two primaries can disenfranchise general election voters, who may only be left with a choice between two liberals or two conservatives. 

Big idea: Ranked choice

What if voters could support several candidates, instead of just one? They can in some jurisdictions that use ranked choice voting, which allows voters to rank candidates by preference. 

While there are variations, the basic promise of ranked-choice voting is that if a voter’s preferred candidate finishes last or is eliminated from contention, their second choice is counted instead, giving them a continued voice in the outcome of an election.

Experts say there is some evidence that such a system can reduce partisanship by encouraging more diverse candidates and alliances with third parties rather than allowing politicians to simply court their bases.

“In the current system, especially in multi-candidate races, you end up attacking the person who’s closest to you, in a way, because you can more easily get their voters,” said Kevin Deegan-Krause, a political science professor at Wayne State University who is working with a group called Rank MI Vote on a potential statewide ballot initiative.

“With ranked choice voting, you really have an incentive to actually be as nice as you can to the candidate next to you so that you can try and pull their voters over to you,” he said. “In general, whenever you’ve got that second choice it gives you incentive to be a little less negative because it’s not just a binary choice of me and nobody else.”

Eastpointe made history in 2019 by becoming the first Michigan government to use ranked choice voting. It did so as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that Black citizens there traditionally had less opportunity than their white counterparts to elect candidates of their choice to citywide office.

Maine voters in 2016 adopted a ranked choice voting system for all their elections for governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House and the state Legislature. The method is also used  in municipal races in Berkley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro in California, and Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota.

Ranked choice voting promoted civility in politics in cities that have used it, according to research from Sarah John and Andrew Douglas of FairVote, a nonpartisan group that champions electoral reforms. In  surveys, respondents from cities with ranked choice voting said local candidates spent less time criticizing opponents, and they perceived less negative campaigning. 

Reality check: There is an effort underway to build support for ranked choice voting in Michigan, but it is in a very early stage, with organizers eyeing a potential ballot proposal for 2022 or 2024. Critics contend ranked choice voting is overly complicated and eats away at the golden rule of one voter, one vote. 

Big idea: Redistricting reform 

Michigan is ahead of the curve on this one. Voters in 2018 approved a ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission that will draw new legislative and congressional maps for the decade beginning in 2022, replacing what had been a highly partisan task in the Michigan Legislature. 

Experts say it won’t be easy, but advocates hope the commission will create more competitive districts. In theory, that would encourage candidates to appeal to moderates if districts aren’t so lopsided. 

In the 2020 elections, the last under the current boundaries, only three of Michigan’s 14 congressional races were decided by less than 10 percentage points in the general election. In some less competitive districts, partisan primaries were more important than the general election, incentivizing candidates to focus on their political bases rather than build coalitions. 

The three Michigan Republicans who voted to block the Electoral College vote count last week — Reps. Jack Bergman of the 1st congressional district, Tim Walberg of the 7th district and Lisa McClain of Michigan’s 10th district — won their general election matchups by 25, 17 and 33 points, respectively. 

Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, meanwhile, both defeated their GOP challenges by 60 or more points. 

Conversely, U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer won by only 6 points, and the freshman Republican quickly asserted his independence by speaking out against President Trump after last week’s riots.

“The Republicans are terrified that if they oppose Trump and Trump supporters that they’ll be primaried,” said Sarbaugh-Thompson. “Hopefully the redistricting redistricting commission will improve that somewhat.”

Reality check: Skeptics say reformers have placed too much faith in the curative powers of the redistricting commission. By and large, Detroit, other cities and a growing number of suburbs are reliably Democratic, while rural areas and northern Michigan are solidly Republican. The new commission will also still need to adhere to the Voting Rights Act by drawing at least two minority-majority districts, likely in and around Detroit.

“There isn’t much way that you can draw a district that’s going to be competitive in the upper Lower Peninsula or Upper Peninsula right now,” Sarbaugh-Thompson said. “It’s also very hard in the large urban areas to really draw competitive districts.”

Skeptics may be surprised, said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the group that led the redistricting reform effort.

“I think we're on the cusp of something dramatically different from all of the gerrymandering and partisan politics that went into our map drawing that we've seen in the past,” Wang said.  

Little idea: Preserve mail-in voting 

Michigan voters in 2018 approved no-reason absentee balloting, which West of the Brooking Institution called one of the most promising reforms to reduce partisanship.

The November election attracted record numbers of voters, 5.5 million, and West said high turnout encourages candidates of both parties to appeal to as many voters as possible, rather than the extremes of their base.

“It reduces extremism,” West said. “We don't want American politics to become a choice between the far right and the far left.”

Reality check: It’s not just Trump who complained about mail-in voting. Republicans in Michigan have raised concerns over the rapid expansion of mail-in voting, including questions over chain-of-custody safeguards and drop box protections. While no-reason absentee balloting is now enshrined in the Michigan Constitution, expect new proposals to at least tighten the process.

Small idea: Bipartisan oversight

On a smaller scale, Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature could promote bipartisanship by giving Democrats a more significant role in legislative oversight committees, according to researchers at Wayne State University

States that do so, like Montana, tend to have less partisan oversight processes, which can increase accountability and build trust in government.

“If you have very small margins… you can control a legislature and you can really run it like some sort of dictatorship,” said Sarbaugh-Thompson, a political science professor. “And as has happened at the national level, oversight tends to be driven by partisanship.”

That means less oversight of state government when one party controls both the Legislature and governor’s office, as was the case from 2010 to 2018 under GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder.

That changed when Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took office in 2019. The Republican-led Legislature has had numerous oversight hearings on her administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, but the hearings can come off as exercises in partisan finger pointing.  

“The states that do better have balanced party membership on the oversight committees,” said Sarbaugh-Thompson. “You have to get serious about structuring the system so that the institutions will actually work regardless of which political party controls what.”

Reality check: Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature is making administrative oversight a top priority amid the COVID-19 pandemic and is unlikely to give up any control of that process given Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s reluctance to cede any emergency authority. 

Small idea: Transparent government

Michigan is one of just two states where top leaders are exempt from public record laws, said Wang, the director of Voters not Politicians. 

Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act does not include the governor, the lieutenant governor, their offices or legislators. In December, the Michigan Senate adjourned without taking up transparency legislation that would subject the politicians to public record requests. 

Conservatives and liberals agree these exemptions should be reformed to improve government accountability. 

“As a society, we recognize that information helps people make decisions about whether or not government actions were good or whether they fell short of some expectation,” said Michael Reitz, the executive vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative research and educational institute. 

In introducing new conflict-of-interest and lame-duck policies Wednesday, Michigan’s new House speaker said he hopes to pursue a broader government reform agenda in Lansing, including potential expansion of public records laws. 

“I think anything that improves transparency is on the table,” Wentworth said. 

Reality check: Good government reform proposals make for feel-good news conferences but have repeatedly sputtered and failed in the Michigan Legislature. Democratic conflict-of-interest proposals have gone nowhere, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has effectively blocked past iterations of FOIA reform. It’s not clear if he’ll be any more receptive to the idea this term. 

Bonus idea: Reforming term limits

Michigan is one of 15 states with term limits on state lawmakers, and its rules are some of the most extreme: six years or three two-year terms for state representatives, and eight years or two four-year terms for state senators.

Michigan adopted its limits in 1992, at the height of popularity for the reform that was intended to bring new ideas into government. 

Instead, critics say it’s shifted power to special interests since lawmakers spend most of their first term learning about government and must  leave once they’ve figured it out. Grossmann said it’s also encouraged polarization by removing older members who are more willing to compromise.

Over the years, reformers have proposed allowing representatives to serve nine years. In 2019, a bipartisan group of legislators filed an unsuccessful federal lawsuits to end the limits.

Reality check: There is no serious movement to end term limits, which polls say are popular among voters who would like to see them extended to Congress.

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Thu, 01/14/2021 - 7:57am

The term limit idea should be extended to a limit of elected service at any branch of government. We should limit the total time someone can spend in any elected position.

We should not have any career politicians!

Thu, 01/14/2021 - 1:08pm

Instead, we should eliminate term limits. They are unconstitutional. Elections and impeachment should limit terms. That goes for the presidency as well.

Jason Cole
Thu, 01/14/2021 - 8:17pm

You didn't read the article, did you?

Dan Moerman
Sun, 01/17/2021 - 11:05am

Term limits has simply outsourced legislation to lobbyists, and empowers ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. Much legislation then is not written by legislators. That is the primary effect of term limits.

Frank Lee
Thu, 01/14/2021 - 8:08am

Mibridge needs to find new "experts", this time try objective ones.

Top-Two primaries?? So a Democrat majority in our 4 largest cities can dictate the two candidates for office? It's already happening with Governor, Sec of State, AG and federal Senators. Yeah, this will reduce the partisanship, why not just say only Democrats will be allowed to vote. Your example of California and Washington, both heavily Democrat states, isn't helping your argument of top-two voting

Redistricting, but only when it suits Democrats. In the same section you advocate for fair districting, you also promote 2 minority-majority districts, as in 2 guaranteed Democrat districts, where Republicans have no chance and based on race. Obviously separate but equal is acceptable if it benefits the right people, the right party.

Be cautious with your assertions of "facts". Proposal 3 in 2018 was a mish-mash of voting ideas. Some good (like restoring straight ticket voting and automatic voter registration unless the person opts out), some abhorent, one of which was no reason absentee voting.

I voted for Prop 3 because the good outweighed the bad. If it had been broken up into individual votes (as it should have been) I suspect that no reason absentee voting would not have passed. Which is why they packaged it with other, more popular changes.

As a life long independent voter I've voted Democrat, Republican and third party. Years ago I voted FOR the candidate. The past several elections I voted against the worst candidate to minimize the damage to the state or country. Often from a field of the worst candidate from each party.

If you want voter reform and faith in our elections and government:

1) Restore election integrity. Very few, if any, believe the 2020 election was fair and honest

2) curb or counter media and partisan BS and smears. If people think that a decision or statement they made 30 years ago, in another cultural climate, is going to be distorted and used against them, the only people you'll have running are the amoral people who don't care. Fortunately some groups attempt to provide objective information, unfortunately few use them. Even Mother Theresa would be afraid of running for office in this environment.

3) give every registered or nominated candidate a voice. When we have debates for state wide offices, all we hear are Democrat and Republican, all other voices are ignored. If nothing else it gives voters more exposure to them and their ideas, which could be used to influence the eventual winner. That's not to say to allow any wacko who registers to debate, but if a candidate is likely to be on the ballot, they should be included in the debates.

Approx. 30% of the voters will vote either Democrat or Republican, regardless of whom that party nominates. The election is decided by the approx 40% of the independent or swing voters. The voters who are increasingly disgusted by the elections. Voters who've gone from voting for the best person to voting for the least despicable one, as there are no best candidates and few good ones. Just ones who can do the least damage. Or voters who just give up on voting.

Garbage "reporting" like 51% of the statewide votes were for Democrats so having any Republican in office proves Republicans cheated does no service to election integrity and only stokes division.

Long term, we need to start focusing on our kids, getting them good, unbaised, education in civics and government and not the feel good BS shoved down their throats now

The only two half way decent ideas is this article is more government transparency and modifying (or preferably eliminating) term limits.

Robert E Balwinski
Thu, 01/14/2021 - 11:47am

"Very few, if any, believe the 2020 election was fair and honest"

This is the big lie spewed by Trumpers. Notice how there was no citation of a poll or site that verifies this opinion??

Thu, 01/14/2021 - 11:58am

Prop 3 passed with 67% support in 2018; it wouldn't pass with that much support today because of Trumpism. Many Republicans decided for themselves back then that it was a good idea until Trump told them recently that it wasn't a good idea.

"Very few, if any, believe the 2020 election was fair and honest"

The only people who believe the election fraud lie is Trump and his most fervent supporters. Which is funny because your comment about the election not being fair and honest goes against your second point about "partisan BS." Even Trump's own appointed head of election security said 2020 was the most secure election in US history. Even Bill Barr said they have found no evidence of fraud. Even GOP-elected governors and GOP-elected Secretaries of State have said the election wasn't rigged.

Also, it's worth pointing out that your comments about feeling like you needed to vote for the least worst option is something that can be resolved with ranked-choice voting. Ranked choice actually makes 3rd parties viable because people don't have to feel like they are "throwing away their vote" if they choose to vote 3rd party.

Thu, 01/14/2021 - 1:10pm

The whole point is that the top two Democrats or Republicans will be moderates, rather than the extremists we have now.

Sun, 01/17/2021 - 9:44am

And you believe this why? Michigan already has an open primary, where any voter who choses to vote (few people now vote in primaries) can select their top choice among all the aspiring candidates of one party or the other. Only rarely has this system NOT led to voters selecting the more moderate or more experienced candidates from each party.

The extreme polarization created by Trump and his supporters is not normal and not sustainable, because the moderates on both sides are being driven out of the major parties by the extremists. Ranked choice voting without requiring a party affiliation of either voters or candidates is a much preferable way of reducing polarization and discouraging candidates from adopting extreme positions.

Thu, 01/14/2021 - 1:21pm

Frank, answer this: Did Biden win the 2020 election?

Fri, 01/15/2021 - 1:53pm

"Top-Two primaries?? So a Democrat majority in our 4 largest cities can dictate the two candidates for office? "
Can you expand on this a bit? I'm definitely not sold on "top-two" but I'm having a hard time understanding how this outcome would happen. Majority Republican districts would likely have the choice between two Republicans. Majority Democrat districts would likely have the choice between two Democrats. Swing districts and statewide would, it seems to me, likely have a Republican running against a democrat. What am I missing?

"some abhorent, one of which was no reason absentee voting."
What's wrong with no-reason absentee voting?

"Years ago I voted FOR the candidate. The past several elections I voted against the worst candidate"
This is exactly the situation that a ranked-choice ballot is mean to address.

"Redistricting, but only when it suits Democrats. In the same section you advocate for fair districting, you also promote 2 minority-majority districts, as in 2 guaranteed Democrat districts, where Republicans have no chance and based on race."
I didn't read that as him "promoting" minority-majority districts; my understanding is that this is required by the Voting Rights Act.

"1) Restore election integrity"
What concrete steps would you suggest to accomplish this?

"Very few, if any, believe the 2020 election was fair and honest"
The data seem to suggest this is not the case: https://morningconsult.com/form/tracking-voter-trust-in-elections/ Republican confidence in the elections is definitely down, but I think that's mostly because Trump has been filling their heads with misinformation for the last year or so. I would suggest this (both Trump himself, and the fact that so many people are willing to believe his blatant, trivially-refuted lies) is a symptom, not a cause, of political polarization.

"2) curb or counter media and partisan BS and smears."
Sounds nice, but again, how? The first amendment makes that problematic.

"3) give every registered or nominated candidate a voice."
I believe ranked-choice voting would make this more possible than it currently is. The problem as I see it is that politics is so tied to money; donors don't want to back a candidate who they see as unlikely to win. Ranked-choice would shake things up a bit and let people vote for who they actually want, without worrying about "throwing away their vote" on a third-party candidate.

"Garbage "reporting" like 51% of the statewide votes were for Democrats so having any Republican in office proves Republicans cheated"
I don't think anyone said that.

Thomas Richardson
Thu, 01/14/2021 - 9:00am

You lost me at "Brookings Institute is a CENTRIST think tank". First time I ever read those words...but I soldiered on until you extolled "top 2" voting which has lead to one-party states in California and Washington...and then I came back again until the claim that Republicans need to cede more legislative oversight authority to minority Democrats in the name of "bipartisanship" on a day when every Democrat in Congress votes to impeach the President in what the NY Times called a "bipartisan" vote because 10 of the over 200 Republicans joined them. This when the Democrats want to end the filibuster, pack the Supreme Court and admit DC and Puerto Rico as states because they won the Presidency by fewer votes than Trump did and they hold a tie- breaker in the Senate. Methinks your partisanship is showing....

Thu, 01/14/2021 - 12:51pm

There have been four presidential impeachments in the history of the United States; go look up the vote breakdown for those impeachments and realize why having 10 Republicans voting for impeachment is historically significant.

Thu, 01/14/2021 - 1:24pm

Thomas, what do you think about what happened at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021?

Billy D
Thu, 01/14/2021 - 9:32am

Gov. Whitmer did nothing to help with unity when she put her VETO on the repeal of the Emergency Manager Law. This says a lot about a person and their intentions. We are not an aristocratic country. Bringing Gov. Snyder up on charges also does nothing to unify the State of Michigan or the USA.

Thu, 01/14/2021 - 1:25pm

So, Billy, how do you feel about Trump not conceding the election to Biden?

R. M. Barron
Thu, 01/14/2021 - 9:34am

Thank you, Bridge. Far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness!

Thu, 01/14/2021 - 11:06am

The "top two candidate" idea, as done in CA and WA, is just an opening for the nose of the camel to get into the tent, the camel being the democratic party, and the tent being complete control of the government forever.

How about we have some common sense ideas like an end of registration date that allows clerks the time to properly vet all that would vote. Anyone who will vote must have lived in their district for 30 days. Positive voter ID for everyone at all elections. Absentee ballots must be requested each time there is an election. A better way to police the voter roles, not saying that a person has to vote every election, but that persons residence should be validated often. Term limits to be cumulative for all elected offices, to eliminate anyone from jumping from one office to another and making a career of it. Eliminate PAC money, and all blind donations. Every penny donated to a candidate must be identified and made public. No negative comments allowed against an opponent, a candidate is only allowed to express what they would do. For federal elections, a common set of rules on how the election is conducted among all the states. All election rules must follow the Constitution, so no more changing the rules by judges, election officials, or others, only as prescribed by the legislature.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

David Frye
Thu, 01/14/2021 - 2:25pm

Most of these ideas are good and should be adopted immediately (ha ha, as if that's possible in Michigan government).

But top-two primaries? No way! That is an absolute non-starter. It simply invited monkey games, making it far too easy for a Republican-leaning district to end up with two Democratic candidates or vice versa. No way, no way.

Karen M
Fri, 01/15/2021 - 12:16pm

How about define and ensure that ONLY legal votes be counted. Also- ensure that any technology used is monitored by numerous oversight groups.

Sun, 01/17/2021 - 9:32am

Top Two Primaries have given pretty awful results in California so far, and have resulted in even more regional polarization in Washington state. As a conservative living in Washtenaw County, I have long been required to vote as Democrat in ost primaries in order to have any influence at all on selecting local elected officials.

Ranked choice voting is used for all elected offices in both Australia and Ireland. It's been a success so far in Maine and the cities and counties where is has been tried. I Would greatly prefer to move Michigan toward ranked-choice voting in both primaries and general elections rather than go to a jungle or "top two" primary.

Sun, 01/17/2021 - 7:15pm

Great article and comments to start a focus for Bridge in 2021 to turn down the volume of hyperpartisanship and to find common ground for improvements. There is nothing inherently wrong with political parties, but when their influence on our political process reaches the current duopoly status, we find greatly diminished choices for voters. Our two major parties have significant control of our election process. In the vast majority of party-run primaries, the party's core voters select the candidate to go on the the general election; this core group is frequently only 20% or less of the age-eligible citizens.
Open Primaries and Ranked Choice Voting can significantly broaden the choices voters have while incentivizing candidates to appeal to more than just the party base. Top Five Open Primaries (as opposed to Top Two) would provide a much wider choice of ideas and candidates. Its not so much candidates from multiple parties as candidates with multiple perspectives. All political parties have room for candidates with a range of perspectives (some more than others) , and its the spectrum of ideas that we want to offer to voters. The top five candidates in the open primary would go on to the general election, and the general election would be by ranked choice voting.