The embarrassingly lopsided defeat of Proposal 1, the linchpin of a plan to raise money to repair Michigan’s roads and bridges, offered some expected and unexpected lessons for state leaders.
6 things we learned:
1) Michigan residents want better roads.
Yes, we’ve seen the vote totals for the ballot proposal. But polls indicate voters weren’t casting “no” votes because they’re happy with Michigan roads. In a poll conducted recently, 67 percent said the state’s roads and bridges were in poor condition; 1 percent rated the roads as “excellent.”
2) The crappiness of your roads had no impact on your vote.
Counties with the worst roads voted down the proposal just as overwhelmingly as the counties with the best roads. Voters hated the ballot proposal even more than the roads.
3) Complexity is the enemy of “yes”
People want better roads. But Prop 1 didn’t offer voters a simple “Would you pay X to fix roads” question. The complexity of the ballot question, with the multiple moving parts the proposal incorporated, left voters both confused and speculating that Lansing lawmakers had something nefarious up their sleeves. Which leads to …
4) Don’t expect a committee to write something simple.
The ballot language was written in a few hours by legislative staff in the rush of December’s Lame Duck session. The language reads more like a legislative bill, with all the horse swapping that that involves, rather than a proposal voters could understand. Successful ballot proposals are simple, straightforward, and well-tested in focus groups and polls. Here, support for the proposal went down when people read the actual ballot language. “This violated every rule of successful ballot proposals,” said Roger Martin, whose firm Martin Waymire led the advocacy campaign in support of the proposal (Martin Waymire also performs work for The Center for Michigan; it had no role in Bridge’s coverage of this issue).
5) Old-school political influence doesn’t exist anymore.
The governor supported the proposal, going as far as to throw asphalt into potholes and make whistle-stop tours of the state. Democratic and Republican leaders supported the proposal. So did numerous business organizations, labor unions, police and fire leaders. Only one newspaper in the entire state urged a no vote, according to Martin. The rest, including the liberal-leaning Detroit Free Press and the conservative-leaning Detroit News, all endorsed it. Voters who get their news from friends on Facebook and Twitter don’t pay attention to old-school voting advice.
6) There’s a lot of anger and cynicism out there, and politicians better pay attention.
Voters have been trained by political ads for years not to trust the politicians from the other party, especially when they say (insert pet project here) can be paid for with existing funds and/or someone else’s money, via "cutting waste" (GOP version) or "making business pay its fair share" (Dems' version). That cynicism may have peaked with Prop 1, with everyone from tea partiers to progressive Democrats hating a ballot initiative supported by the leaders of both. “We anticipated the complexity of the ballot proposal, but we did not anticipate the anger,” Martin said. “The anger was palpable. It was a rebuke of the legislative process.”
What we didn’t learn:
1) Does Tuesday's result mean Michigan voters want smaller government?
Poll results seem to indicate the opposite. Michigan residents who participated in an Epic-MRA poll in April said that they were against cuts to education, social services and revenue sharing to local governments to pay for road repairs. A majority of Michigan residents are willing to pay more for better roads, according to the findings of community conversations and polls conducted by The Center for Michigan.
2) Does this affect Gov. Rick Snyder’s ability to run for president?
For a politician billing himself nationally as a “problem solver,” it doesn’t help when he can’t leverage the weight of his office to solve a major problem in his own state, especially when Snyder campaigned vigorously for the proposal. That being said, Snyder’s approval ratings are high (48 percent positive to 36 percent negative in the Epic-MRA poll); Compare that to the approval ratings of the Michigan Legislature (27 percent positive, 67 percent negative) Since the same respondents were overwhelmingly opposed to Proposal 1, it appears Michigan blames the Legislature, not Snyder, for the mess. Snyder wanted the Legislature to find a way to fund roads without a ballot proposition. Apparently, voters agreed.
3) What does this mean for future ballot proposals?
Probably nothing. Simple, straight-forward initiatives still have a shot at winning. “Complex, convoluted ones,” Martin said, “don’t.”