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Election reform critical to restoring public trust

The truth is always necessary – even when it hurts. The Center for Michigan’s recent report, “Fractured Trust: Lost faith in state government, and how to restore it,” was by far the darkest and most pessimistic we’ve ever issued.

The outcome of 125 small community conversations and two large polls, more than 4,700 Michiganders, concluded state government is simply not living up to public expectations and that they don’t expect government to deliver on many of its key missions: oversight over elementary, secondary and higher education, protection of public health, services for low-income people and fostering economic growth.

Even more troubling, participants expressed profound distrust that state government and our leaders have the ability – or even the will – to restore trust in our public bodies.

Two reform measures received majority support: Fixing our current emergency manager system that is judged deficient in balancing local accountability with proper financial management, and tightening up our campaign finance reporting system to protect elections from the widespread swish of secret “dark money” from special interest donors.

Reforming both is without any doubt a part of any program to restore public trust in our government.

But what is puzzling is lack of consensus on how best to implement two much more far-reaching reforms: Term limits for officeholders and redistricting, the once-in-a-decade process of drawing legislative districts that has resulted in a badly gerrymandered and unrepresentative system.

Strict term limits – six years for state representatives and eight for state senators and the governor – were added to the state Constitution a generation ago. The net effect – placing a premium on legislative inexperience – has been criticized for years by virtually everybody who has had anything to do with Lansing, including many lawmakers themselves.

Michigan residents in our research agreed. Three quarters of participants told us they had “low” or “very low trust in the ability of term limits to result in effective legislative leadership.

Just last week, for example, a senior Republican legislative leader told me, “there is essentially no institutional memory and far too many members simply don’t know how to do their job effectively.” Another, however, mocked any chance of changing the system: “Anybody who thinks the legislature is going to put longer term limits on the public ballot had better take a quick reality course. It’s political suicide.”

Maybe so, but if ultra-strict term limits result in governmental incompetence and legislative shortsightedness, Michiganders who mistrust state government might want to think hard about a basic reason this is so. Fixing term limits won’t be easy, as they’re embedded in the state Constitution.  And powerful out-of-state outfits like U. S. Term Limits are always ready to attack any suggested changes. But if we’re serious about reforming our system to increase public trust, we’d better start working on it.

Equally so with gerrymandering, the practice universally followed by both parties (when they get the chance) of stacking the electoral deck to make sure one party or the party in power controls the ways legislative district boundaries are set up.

The results of gerrymandering are persistent and pernicious. Gerrymandered districts are set up to ensure one party wins, regardless of majority opinion in any given district. Minority and independent voters are shut out. And office-holders in gerrymandered districts can ignore the opinions of their constituents just as long as their partisan base holds firm.

For example, The Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-right Republican members of Congress, last week successfully thwarted President Trump’s efforts to repeal Obamacare. Most caucus districts are heavily gerrymandered; in 2016, 43 of the 45 caucus members who voted to depose then-Speaker of the House John Boehner won their districts by an average of 38 percent.

Gerrymandered districts are by definition unrepresentative. In Michigan, for example, results from the elections of 2014 and 2016 for the state House reflect the results of gerrymandered district lines. Despite narrow partisan splits in voting results for both years, Republicans wound up with overwhelming 63-47 majorities in the House.

Measured by The Center for Michigan’s survey results, the public disapproves. Some 84 percent of community conversation participants said they had “low” or “very low” trust of fair representation in the state legislature. Some 57 percent told us they favored reforming how legislative districts are drawn.  

For years, there has been a persistent undercurrent of grumbling in Michigan about both term limits and gerrymandering. Our community conversations did not conclusively show a majority of opinion in favor of any particular reform proposal, although that may be the result of limited public discussion.

Until policy makers and, more important, ordinary citizens come together and start ringing the bell for serious, far-reaching reforms instead of pussyfooting around the edges, we’ll have a hard time regaining the trust of our people in the governance and management of our state.  We’d best get started right now … before it’s too late.

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