Here’s something that should come as no surprise: Public trust in government and in our political system is low ‒ and getting lower.
Many voters nationally are looking for non-establishment candidates with little ‒ or no ‒ experience in holding office. Confidence in Congress is hovering just above single-digit levels. A majority say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
In Michigan, the Flint debacle is still sucking up public confidence in government at all levels: local, regional, state. Michigan State University’s annual IPPSR (Institute for Public Policy and Social Research) State of the State Survey shows trust in state government is low and has been dwindling for years.
Only one in five Michigan residents says they trust state government “most of the time,” although nearly half say they trust their local governments.
Another new aspect of state government – emergency management – has been around in one form or another since the 1980s, but has only come into broad use in recent years.
The most recent law was adopted by the legislature after an emergency manager law was repealed by voters in 2012. Today, a few school districts still operate under some form of the emergency manager system.
That system’s strong emphasis on balancing budgets and cutting costs above all else has been criticized for ignoring aspects of civic life not portrayed in financial statements – for example, public goods such as safe drinking water and public health.
This has put the practice under special scrutiny since the nightmare of Flint, where emergency managers directed that the city be switched over to an unsafe water source. Moreover, emergency managers by their very definition are undemocratic and take over matters that would normally be under local control.
None of this has helped foster trust in government ‒ and with local, state and national elections coming up this fall, many citizens are mistrustful of the political process itself.
Because boundaries of congressional and legislative districts are redrawn to correspond to changing population, redistricting can be contentious because district lines can be and often are gerrymandered to favor a given political party. Michigan is one of 24 states in which the legislature has primary responsibility for drawing new districts. In Michigan, the Republican Party was in control of the legislature, governorship and state supreme court in 2011 when districts were redrawn after the latest census.
Republicans clearly drew lines to help themselves: In the 2014 election, GOP candidates for the state house of representatives received 49 percent of the total vote but wound up with 57 percent of all the seats. In the state senate, they got 71 percent of the seats.
Voter turnout in Michigan has also been iffy at best. In 2014, 41.6 percent of registered voters cast ballots; two years before, when we elected a president, 63 percent did.
Other states have adopted various measures to increase voter participation: Additional voting days, no-reason absentee voting, mail-in voting, and election-day registration. Our leaders refuse to consider such things, and Michigan’s voter turnout rate is about in the middle of the pack; weaker than Oregon; stronger than Mississippi.
Money is also a source of public discontent with the political process. Nationally, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision has unleashed an unprecedented torrent of political action committee contributions, often anonymous, which raise questions about a political system dominated by the very wealthy. In Michigan, flows of untraceable “dark money” often exceed reported campaign contributions, especially in races for the state Supreme Court.
The Center for Public Integrity gave Michigan in 2015 a grade of “F” for political transparency. Because these issues are so important to the way our state works, the Center for Michigan decided to organize this year’s public outreach campaign around issues of “Restoring Trust in State Government.”
Based on small group “community conversations,” this campaign since 2007 has involved more than 40,000 Michigan residents – the largest such outreach campaign in Michigan history.
It’s clear these conversations go well beyond idle chatter.
State leaders listen carefully to what Michiganders have to say here… and they have followed up on past community conversations in these ways:
- Approving the nation’s largest expansion of public preschool programs
- Toughening certification tests for new teachers and improving the state’s teacher evaluation system
Instituting reforms to save $250 million in state prison costs
- Stopping the drift towards shortening the traditional 180-day school year
New conversations will be held throughout Michigan during the rest of the year. The Center takes great care to make sure that the range of people participating – in age, gender, race and geographic residence – looks exactly like the face of our diverse state.
Results of each conversation are recorded in secret to provide anonymity – including choice preferences recorded by “clickers” – managed by Public Sector Consultants, a nonpartisan research firm in Lansing. Only after the complete results of the campaign are compiled do the Center’s staff members prepare an annual Citizens’ Agenda report that will be distributed broadly, including to the entire newly elected legislature in January 2017.
Attendance is free. Conversations are scheduled at various times during the week to fit busy family schedules.
Please visit the “Community Conversation Calendar” to find a conversation near you and register today.
If you do not see a conversation near your home, keep checking back, as new conversations are added when booked.
Or, if you would like to bring a conversation to your community, contact the Center’s public engagement team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To justify the arrogant or dismissive attitudes of some politicians toward the public that elects them, some claim that “the public gets the office holders they deserve.”
The Center disagrees. Our public engagement work is designed to bring the views of ordinary people into the center of policymaking. I urge everybody reading this to participate. It’s an easy and effective way to help make democracy work.