This election is unlike any in my memory – that goes back a long way, since I’m 74.
In addition to candidates for the state House of Representatives, justices of the state Supreme Court and various other local issues, there are six proposals on the ballot, five to amend the constitution and one a referendum on a law passed by the Legislature.
The committees supporting or opposing the ballot proposals have spent $141 million, according to the Detroit Free Press. That’s the largest amount raised and spent on ballot proposals in Michigan history, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
There are also six major party candidates for three seats on the Supreme Court. According to Rich Robinson, executive director of MCFN, the state’s two main political parties have set aside at least $10 million for the race, around three times what the candidates have raised themselves.
Robinson has documented another $10 million in unreported spending for TV advertising, together with an undetermined amount for radio and direct mail.
Because Michigan’s campaign disclosure laws are shamefully anemic, much of this torrent of spending – especially for the Supreme Court – has come from anonymous donors. So who knows what interests are spending beaucoup bucks to game the judicial system.
That’s not so in the case of Manuel "Matty" Moroun, billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge, and his family, who have spent record amounts trying to safeguard their monopoly.
They’ve raised nearly $32 million for the committee supporting Proposal 6, which would require a public vote in order to build an international bridge. Overall, the Moroun family has raised or spent more than $100 million in attempts to pass or defeat the six ballot proposals, according to Bridge Magazine, a publication of the Center for Michigan.
The Center is a "think-and-do-tank" I founded back in 2006 to try to bring a sense of moderate, nonpartisan rationality to Michigan politics. An important part of the Center’s work is to help fill the information vacuum that has opened up with the hobbling of the newspapers and broadcast media that used to report in detail what was going on in Lansing and with state policy.
All in all, Bridge has run 10 in-depth stories on the six ballot proposals; they can be found at http://bridgemi.com/ballot-mania-page/. They’ve also appeared in Crain’s Detroit Business, Mlive and the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Deadline Detroit recently gave Bridge a public service award for "Ballot Mania", a guide to the proposals that is "the clearest, most useful resource of its type."
The Michigan Truth Squad is another program from The Center for Michigan. It’s designed to cut through the claims – true, false, misleading, whatever – in political ads, whether on TV, radio or in mailers. A team of experienced (and gimlet-eyed) reporters examines and fact checks the ads and blows the whistle, calling fouls of varying severity or no fouls.; While there are other fact-checking services in Michigan, the Truth Squad has been by far the most active, posting from July 1 through Nov. 5 a total of 68 posts, a slight majority on the various ballot proposals. Truth Squad posts can be found here.
Record-Eagle Editor Mike Tyree says, "Bridge election coverage is very helpful in augmenting our coverage, especially on the ballot proposals. There really is no one out there who is breaking down those misleading and false ads. It’s a nice tonic for democracy."
Once citizens have taken a deep breath and reflected on the abuses of our democratic system so sadly on display during this election, I suspect there will be loud calls for reform. In the meantime, our work at Bridge Magazine and the Michigan Truth Squad has tried to help ordinary citizens exercise their political rights in a knowing and informed way.
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.