Missing in action: Michigan's primary voters

While Michigan's general election in November will claim its share of headlines, it’s the predictably overlooked Aug. 2 primary next Tuesday that’s as likely to shape state politics for years to come.

And yet if the past is prologue, just 1-in-5 registered voters will even bother to show up. In at least a couple a dozen open state House primaries - where districts are strongly tilted toward one party or the other - this sliver of voters will in all likelihood determine the winner of the general election as well.

“I don't see any reason to expect any big difference this time around,” said Matt Grossmann, director of Michigan State University's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.

“It's not just that you are giving up your chance to participate in the primary. It's a civic responsibility. If you give that up, you are making a choice in how involved you are going to be in your community and your state.”

This voter disappearing act has been playing for decades.

e: Michigan SOS)

In 2012, the last presidential cycle, 19.7 percent of registered voters in Michigan turned out in the primary, which was actually better than 2008, when 18.8 percent somehow found their way to a voting booth. Primary turnout dipped as low as 15.1 percent statewide in 1990, a gubernatorial election cycle.

It's even worse in some locales: In 2006, 6.6 percent turned out for the primary in the Upper Peninsula's Dickinson County.

In a sense, Grossmann said, the primary no-shows are ceding the right to select winners to the voter cohort most likely to turn up at the polls.

According to the Pew Research Center those voters tend to be elderly, more affluent, better educated and more likely to attend church regularly.

This year, control of the 110-seat state House will be determined by outcome of the Nov. 8 election, in which the Democrats are given an outside chance to wrest control from the GOP. But either way, the primary results will go a long way in defining the character and makeup of both parties.

The seats of 41 incumbent state representatives are open, by and large due to term limits. Thanks to political gerrymandering, at least a couple dozen of these districts tilt decisively toward one party or the other.

Of those seats, 13 rate at least 60 percent toward one party partisan and 27 at least 55 percent toward one party, partisan, according to Inside Michigan Politics, a Lansing political newsletter. Its calculations are based on votes for the state Board of Education – considered a neutral barometer of party affiliation - the past four election cycles.

The primary winners of the dominant party in these races will be odds-on favorites in the fall. Put another way, the primary is the election.

And judging by plenty of political resumes since term limits passed in 1992, some of these winners will go on to serve the allowed maximum 14 years in the Legislature – six years in the House, plus another eight years in the state Senate.

The general rule of thumb in contested open primaries is this: The more heavily tilted toward one party partisan a district, the more candidates from the dominant party will queue up to run. A sampling:

House 86th near Grand Rapids - Republican

East of Grand Rapids in the rural 86th House District, five GOP candidates are running to replace Lisa Posthumus Lyons, who is term limited and on the ballot for Kent County clerk. The field includes lawyer and mediator Katherine Henry, lawyer Jeff Johnson, Marine Corps veteran Thomas Albert, Bartholomew James, once listed as a Libertarian candidate for president, and Matthew VanderWerff, a farmer and accountant.

They are competing in one of the most conservative House districts in the state – 68 percent Republican, according to Inside Michigan Politics.

That makes the GOP primary winner strongly favored in the fall, even though Democrat Lynn Mason – who raised more than $100,000 in 2014 – is running again. Mason got 34 percent of the vote last time around.

House 15th Dearborn - Democratic

In the Dearborn-based 15th House District near Detroit, six Democrats are jostling for the chance to succeed outgoing incumbent George Darany. It's an intriguing race, in part because Dearborn holds the highest concentration portion of Arab Americans of any city in the nation.

Darany has given his blessing to Dearborn Board of Education member Roxanne McDonald. That endorsement came on the heels of Wayne County Executive Warren Evans' backing of professional health adviser Abdullah Hammoud of Dearborn, the son of Lebanese immigrants.

Earlier this year, Hammoud reported receiving a hate-mail message including the words “No More Arabs” and “Go Back to Lebanon.”

The Democratic field also includes business owner Norman Alsahoury, former Dearborn School board member Alex Shami, U.S. Navy veteran Brian Stone and Dearborn Public Schools liaison Jacklin Zeidan.

Three Republicans have filed as well, construction worker Terrance Guido Gerin, chiropractor Richard Johnson and substitute teacher Paul Sophiea.

Given that the district is rated 61 percent Democratic by Inside Michigan Politics, the Democratic primary victor will have a clear advantage in the fall.

U.S. House 1st, Northern Michigan - Republican

This closely watched congressional race may hold more possibilities for November drama.

In the sprawling 1st U.S. House district of northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, three GOP candidates are fighting to succeed outgoing Congressman Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls.

They include state Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba, former state Sen. Jason Allen of Traverse City and Jack Bergman, a retired Lt. General from Watersmeet in the U.P. In the Democratic primary, former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson of Kalkaska faces former Kalkaska County Sheriff Jerry Cannon, who ran against Benishek in 2014.

The district rates a bit closer than many of the state races, at 54 percent Republican, according to Inside Michigan Politics. Democrats like to think they have a chance to win the seat, given that Democrat Bart Stupak served in the 1st from 1993 to 2011.

Senate 4th - Democratic tilt

In the Detroit-based 4th Senate District, nine Democrats are on the ballot to complete the term of replace former Sen. Virgil Smith, jailed in March for 10 months for shooting at his ex-wife’s Mercedes Benz. The district is rated 83 percent Democratic by Inside Michigan Politics – the most partisan Senate seat in the state and the only one up for grabs this year.

Best known in the bunch are Ian Conyers, great-nephew of longtime U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., and former state Rep. Fred Durhal Jr. The field also includes three candidates who lost bids for Detroit House seats in 2014, James Cole Jr., Carron Pinkins and Vanessa Simpson Olive. Republican Keith Franklin of Detroit is unopposed in the GOP primary.

The winner of the general election will serve the remainder of Smith's term, which runs through 2018.

Given the makeup of the district, said Susan Demas of Inside Michigan Politics, the Democratic winner would have to run a campaign unprecedented in its awfulness all but have to commit murder in order to lose the general election.

“It's the old metaphor about being caught with a dead girl or a live boy,” Demas said, adding that it is “virtually impossible” for a Republican to win this district. “There's just not enough people on the other side of aisle to overcome that.”

Grossmann of the Institute for Public Policy said voters who don’t show at primaries tend to know less about politics and state government than those who vote. They are less likely to know the names on the primary ballot, hence more likely to stay home.

Evidence shows there are plenty of voters without a keen knowledge of Michigan elections or politics. .

Grossmann cited an institute survey of state residents conducted in April which showed only 55 percent could identify the GOP as the party that controls the state Senate – not much better than guessing. Fewer than half of the respondents know that state legislators are subject to term limits. And more than 1-in-4 could identify Debbie Stabenow as one of the state’s two U.S. senators.

“It's not necessarily good to have someone vote for the only name they've ever heard of,” he said.

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled the name and military rank of GOP congressional candidate Jack Bergman. He is a retired Marine Corps Lt. General. The original article also misspelled the name of Matt Grossmann.

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Tue, 07/26/2016 - 8:04am
Low primary voter turnout? How can anyone be expected to keep track of all the varoius races and the issuese at stake in each one and then throw primaries on top of this mess? You should have serious concerns about anyone who says they do!! Simply Michigan has way too many offices, districts and elected officials! Why does Michigan really need both and a state house and a state senate? Townships, are all too often nothing but crony club holdovers from the horse and buggy days, Drain commissioners .. really? University Regents?, All the judges... does anyone seriously believe they know anything about what and why they'd vote for one verse the other? We could get rid of more than half of these positions having them appointed by fewer elected officials. Then look at the costs. How much of our tax dollars would be freed up by just eliminating townships and passing their duties to the counties?
Robyn Tonkin
Tue, 07/26/2016 - 5:56pm
Hi Matt: If you have not already done so, I would suggest that you read the excellent Bridge article about drain commissioners and why they are important elected officials. It has to do with the fact that much of the east side of MI is reclaimed swamp. You must not live in a rural UP township, as I do. We have no urban center to speak of in my township--just a crossroads with a couple of stores in what used to be a railroad junction. But, we do have many miles of paved and gravel roads that need a great deal of maintenance, and most crucially, snow plowing in the winter. The township is a very useful political entity in situations like ours. Our county seat is 65 miles away from our township, and is not as responsive to concerns as township elected reps are. I have in times past I have spoken at length with the the township tax assessor and zoning officer about problems and concerns that I had. Would you like to know what is really poor governance? Allowing huge monolithic metropolitan areas to exercise taxing and zoning authorities. Just try to get your puny little needs/questions/objections addressed by a levitation like that. On the other hand, I have at least had substantive dialogue and some needs addressed and wrongs righted in one on ones with a tax assessor or zoning officer who I knew, at least by name.
Tue, 07/26/2016 - 7:02pm
Robyn, you've missed the point, It's not that the duties of drain commissioner, dog catcher or secretary of state aren't important. The point is these positions and individuals along with a bunch of others, have very specific requirements knowledge, experience and abilities which are and best filled through a formal hiring process rather than the usual baloney that elections and politicians are involved with.
Sun, 07/31/2016 - 4:32am
Hi Matt. I'm sorry if this sounds blunt, but if you know the difference between Katie Perry & Taylor Swift or Ben Affleck & Brad Pitt, don't you believe people should understand who is running for their local government and the differences between them? Saying we should just vote one person into office and let them deal with it is completely missing the point of the entire article. Plus, look at what happened in Flint when people gave Snyder the power to appoint an EFM. There are very real consequences to being in the dark and throwing your hands up in frustration is exactly what some evil-doers would rather you do.
Sun, 07/31/2016 - 9:50pm
Then why don't we have the janitor at the local court house stand for election?
Tue, 07/26/2016 - 8:45am
A local TV station is giving brief profiles of Ingham Co. prosecutor position candidates. A bunch of no names giving the same old predictable cliches about how they are against crime (surprise!!!) etc. Hard to tell any of them apart from each other.
Tue, 07/26/2016 - 10:21am
The demographics of those voters that do turn out speaks more to the changing ways people get their news; the majority of the population gets their news from some other source than TV. If you really want increased voter turnout, you have to inform voters that an election is happening. That begs the question: do these politicians actually want people to vote, or are they counting on our ignorance?
Tue, 07/26/2016 - 12:10pm
They only want a selected few to vote, which is why they always put millage items on the May or August ballot.
Kevin Grand
Tue, 07/26/2016 - 1:37pm
No argument here with the headline. But here would be two of my suggestions to fix this: First, eliminate political designations on all ballots. Part of the rationale behind the national trend to ban straight-ticket voting (in 40-states now and counting) is that it makes voters do their homework and study the candidates and issues. But why stop there? With no "-d" or "-r" after a candidates name, or any party iconography whatsoever, candidates would have their feet held to the fire in order to get their message out to the voters. If the political parties have a problem with this, then they can just run their elections internally (i.e. county caucuses) and pick up the entire cost themselves. Second, institute a real Part-Time Michigan Legislature. It's no secret that the Michigan Legislature is already a Part-Time entity. High five and six-figure salaries w/bennies from day one. Expense account. State provided support staff (who do the bulk of the real work anyway). And take a look at the actual work schedule for the Michigan House and the Michigan Senate. And don't let those single days in July and August fool anyone. Those are just there so that politicians can say that they don't take the entire summer off. Watching who is really there on MGTV or reading the journals to see what bills were put in the hopper is a different story entirely. Condense the session into a hard three month window (say May through July) in which EVERYTHING gets done. And by that, I mean everything: naming of a highway after someone in your district, designating the state fungi and that pesky little thing known as the yearly budget. Nothing done before that. Nothing done after. Politicians would have plenty of time to campaign for office, local units of government can accurately know what they have for their own budgets and voters can have something to judge their elected officials record with. In the unlikely event of a statewide emergency, a special session can be called in one-day increments with a one week notification requirement regarding everything on the agenda to be voted upon. Super-majority votes of 80% will be required for passage on every item (in case anyone gets the bright idea of ramming through a tax hike after election day). Those two items right there seriously curtail the influence political parties have on elections, along with the money that inevitably goes with it and returns it to where it rightly belongs: with Michigan Voters. You want to increase voter turnout? Those would be my ideas on where to start.
Tue, 07/26/2016 - 8:52pm
Kevin, You offer many good ideas that deserve a seperate conversation, but I will focus the first point about party labeling. People like to have a choices. In politics when there aren't any established criteria to use in assessing candidates they defer to those they perceive are doing some level of vetting [the Parties]. Your approach is the natural progression from our current primary selection system removing Party labels all together and leaving the voters with no criteria except what they see [personality], hear [name recognition], and how they feel [emotions about recent events and media reporting]. None of these are what we need for holding government programs accountable, for developing laws, or for addressing events. As much as you and I want better quality, more knowledge and skills, in out elected officials, more results from the government programs simply turning primary and general elections into superficial events by removing the Parties we will not get any better candidates or elected officials thus no better government. The reality is that when the Parties' influence/impact on candidates is removed it becomes more about the individual and thus more about advertising thus campaign spending has a greater potential impact. I would like to see voters become better informed, myself included. I would like to hear conversations about what criteria voters could use when assessing candidates. I would like to see efforts like the 'Truth Squad' be directed at providing accurate information that would fit the candidate 'criteria'. I would like the focus away from the past, even the current, to getting ready for the next and future elections, the next and future candidates, about what results we want not what platitudes candidates will use. With all the frustration and with all the bally ho about the Parties, they have little if any direct impact on candidates because they don't select them. What we see is the legacy images and Brands [simply look at the supposed Party platform and see whether elected officials really deliver]. If voters don't have measurable criteria and a means to get credible information about candidates I would support moving the primary election back to Party members or even conventions where the Party can be held accountable.
Kevin Grand
Wed, 07/27/2016 - 8:27am
Duane, I wouldn't go so far as to compare my suggestion of reducing elections to "superficial events", but rather heeding the warnings of one of the Founders regarding the dangers of introducing them into the political calculus. Tell me if any of this sounds familiar (regarding political parties)? "It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another." That warning was made over two centuries ago, and I'll venture a guess that some of those portents are easily recognizable even today. If anything, the best way that I can think to describe my idea would be similar to a runoff election to winnow down the number of candidates. Ironically, DPS recently proved my point. As of last night, 72 people filed to run for 7 seats on the "new" DPS School Board. No one can get up to speed on 72 candidates (even provided that all of them are eventually certified), especially by the November General. Runoff elections can knock that number down to a more manageable level. Granted most elections don't have THAT many candidates (I'll go even further by predicting that most of those running in that DPS race are only paper candidates anyway), but the runoff elections would allow voters to become better acclimated with the pool of available candidates for political office. On the flip side, the smaller the number of candidates, the easier it would be for voters to become knowledgeable on those running.
Wed, 07/27/2016 - 11:00pm
Kevin, Your point is well made. Rather than simply disregard the Parties try to understand why people have used the Parties and develop a means to fill that need. If you can't do that then it seems Parties can address [maybe not well] a critical need. Do you doubt that people want choices, that they want to make informed choices, that Parties in the past did a version of vetting [they were loyal to the Party/brand] and that Parties of today and/or the individual campaigns of today at best provide a superficial view of candidates? Do you know of any source of information that provides any insight into the governing knowledge and skills of candidates, that provide information of what knowledge and skills of successful governing officials have had? Even on Bridge do you see any articles about appropriate knowledge and skills elected officials should have? Are you even sure that the voters [me included] know what the official roles and responsibilities are for the offices people are running for? You mention the DPS, what knowledge and skills should they possess to be effective? How can voters chose if they have no criteria to use? Who do they rely on if not the Parties [which have a brand]? My concern is if we make all elections non-partisan [removing Party labels] then election will only be about personality and campaign ads. Until we have some source of information to use when assessing candidates there the Parties provide some small degree of vetting. Look at the national election, without Party labels we might have election that are about notoriety and emotion. For those voting in Detroit what criteria do they use and where do they get the information?
John Q. Public
Tue, 07/26/2016 - 10:10pm
I simply don't care any more. Neither major party represents my interests, so I couldn't care less which of their members hold office. There's no more taxation to provide public goods; just two private groups of organized thieves with different puppetmasters to pay off, usually at the altar of "economic growth". I've spent decades voting for minor party candidates to try to get in alternatives to the pocket-pickers, but my fellow citizens seem quite content with being ripped off. So, Republicans and Democrats both--they're all yours.
Sun, 07/31/2016 - 8:13pm
Mr. Roelofs says, "Thanks to political gerrymandering, at least a couple dozen of these districts tilt decisively toward one party or the other." It seems to me that that is a considerable over simplification. Doubtless, gerrymandering makes a significant contribution to some districts having a decisive tilt toward one party or the other, but it doesn't account for all of the tilt. There is a lot of self sorting among the electorate. I would like to see somebody determine how much each factor accounts for the tilt. If districts were fairly drawn, how partisan would each district naturally be?