Ban on per-signature fees can help rescue our Michigan Constitution
While giving a speech last week, I asked the audience some questions: “How many have seen TV ads on any of the six ballot proposals?” Every hand in the room went up.
“How many like the ads?” Not one hand was raised.
“How many have had your minds changed by the ads?” Again, not a hand.
“How many think the ads will have an impact on the election?” More than half said yes.
Anybody trying to see how the Tigers are doing on TV -- or watched just about anything else lately -- has seen an avalanche of advertising on the ballot proposals. Thirty million dollars has been spent so far, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which estimates another $10 million will be spent by Election Day.
That’s certainly going to be a record. And judging from my audience, the ads are not popular. Nor does anyone admit to having their minds changed by them. But many believe they change other minds. So, like it or not, all of us are going to continue to be on the receiving end of all those ads between now and Nov. 6, like it or not.
Which brings us to my fundamental point: The rights of citizens to referendum, initiative and recall are a basic democratic protection for a free people, as specified by Michigan’s Constitution. The way such freedoms are exercised is by collecting signatures from registered voters. Then, if the secretary of state determines the required number have been collected and properly filed, their existence is held to legally demonstrate enough public support to justify Michigan putting a proposal on the statewide ballot.
For a proposed constitutional amendment to qualify, 322,609 valid signatures are currently required, which amounts to 10 percent of the votes cast for governor at the last election. Of the six statewide ballot questions this time, all are proposed amendments except Proposal 1, a simple referendum on the emergency manager law.
Back when our state’s constitution was written half a century ago, the delegates believed that such a proportion of signatures would demonstrate legitimate grass-roots citizen support. But they never dreamed of companies whose business is soliciting signatures for pay.
The Voters Voice Group is an outfit based in Little Rock, Ark. The website says the company is a “non-partisan team focused on supporting the voice of the people.”
Evidently the “voice of the people” is measured by the company’s willingness to pay solicitors per signature: $2 each for “taxes and bridges,” $1 for “clean energy and medical care.”
They aren’t alone in offering their assistance for pay -- other firms do so as well. The delegates who wrote the Michigan Constitution that was adopted in 1963 never saw this coming.
Former “Con-Con” delegate Eugene Wagner has said there was no discussion of solicitors soliciting signatures for hire “descending on the state like a bunch of locusts.”
But descend they did, and so what we now have in Michigan is a cottage industry in the business of getting proposals on the ballot for pay, the activity masquerading as “the voice of the people.”
No, damn it; it is anything but. This has become a malignant business that helps wealthy customers pay to get proposals advancing their own parochial interests on the ballot. Constitutions are supposed to constitute the basic framework of our system of democratic government. But when such proposals are adopted, they thereby inject selfish and narrow special interest provisions into our state constitution.
There’s little mystery these days about the signature solicitation business. It costs any well-heeled special interest something like $1.5 million to pay for enough signatures to get something on the ballot, and another $2 million to $4 million to buy the TV ads to promote it, if it is going to have any chance of passage.
The net result: The very best -- or worst -- government money can buy. Do people like it? Not if my audience last week is to be believed. Does all this strength our democratic system of governance? Not if you look to California for evidence.
There, the requirements for getting something on the ballot are much looser than Michigan’s, which has meant that our nation’s largest state has become essentially ungovernable. “Californication” is hard to pronounce, but entirely apt.
What to do about it? Simple. Have the Legislature simply pass a law that bans the practice of paying solicitors per signature to put stuff on the ballot. Six states – Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming – have already done it.
Passing such a law would leave in place the citizen protections of initiative and referendum, and avoid threatening our First Amendment rights of freedom of speech.
What we don’t want is for our Michigan Constitution to become a laughingstock and our Legislature to become irrelevant.
That means we need to change this, fast. It’s too late to do so for 2012. But once the dust has settled from this year’s embarrassing demonstrations of special interest wealth and power, we should step in and actually do something in the public interest, and stop this perversion of democracy before it’s too late.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.
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