Michigan voters did something Tuesday that caught some by surprise:
They made their own decisions.
More than $33 million in advertising by one motivated billionaire, including out-spending his opposition by twenty-fold, couldn’t get a ballot proposal passed. Persistent campaigning by the governor for another ballot proposal didn’t work either.
After months of robocalls and fliers and seemingly endless television ads, the main lesson of Election Day 2012 is just how little all of it may have influenced voters in the end.
“There are limits to money,” said Doug Roberts, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. “People showed up to vote and were discerning, they thought about their decisions rather than just (listening to the ads). That’s a very good statement about democracy.”
Michigan voters considered six statewide ballot proposals Tuesday, and voted down all six. In three of the ballot proposals – home health aide registry and unionization, a two-thirds legislative vote for all tax increases, and an attempt to halt construction of a new Detroit-Windsor bridge – the side spending the most money lost.
According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun spent $33.5 million promoting the bridge crossing Prop 6, compared to $1.6 million for opponents, and only got 40 percent of the vote. Moroun spent another $4.75 million supporting Prop 5, which garnered less than a third of the vote.
“The notion that one billionaire could dictate policy is very disturbing,” said MSU economist Charles Ballard. “Our democracy isn’t perfect, (but the fact that) voters saw through that … is very gratifying to me.”
Rich Robinson, who runs the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said if Prop 6 had passed, it could have changed the political landscape, and not in a good way.
“Prop 6 was sheer lunacy,” Robinson said. “If (Moroun) had been able to sell that … (the message would be) you can get anything you want as long as you’re willing to set a price.”
Two organized labor-backed ballot proposals and a proposal to mandate increases in renewable energy lost, as well as a proposal to maintain the state’s emergency manager law. Different issues with different constituencies, but voters rejected them all. And they rejected them in large numbers – 95 percent of voters who cast votes for president made it to the bottom of the unusually long ballot to vote for Prop 6 (with 25 percent skipping a partial-term Supreme Court vote before reaching the propositions).
“I think people had proposal fatigue and a general sense that this is not a particularly good way to implement policy,” Ballard said. “A lot of people had a visceral ‘I don’t want to clutter up the constitution’ reaction.”
Money spent, status quo holds
The rejection of the ballot proposals coupled with the continued Republican control of the House and Senate appeared to be an endorsement of the status quo. The large GOP House and Senate majorities that have passed sweeping changes to the state tax code and instituted a variety of tough-on-labor government reforms are back in power for the next two years.
“It was a very good night for Rick Snyder and he should feel very good about continuing to push his economic agenda,” said Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. “The mandate here is to keep progress moving on what this administration and this Legislature have been doing for the past two years.”
Voters rejected a continuation of the state’s emergency manager law, which allows Snyder to place an unelected official with sweeping powers in charge of financially troubled municipalities. The governor had campaigned for the proposal, urging a “yes” vote on Prop 1 and a no vote on the rest.
Some in the Snyder camp saw the loss of Prop 1 (the emergency management referendum) as a small price to pay for defeating the other five measures.
As one Snyder ally put it Wednesday, had Proposal 2 (collective bargaining), Proposal 3 (intensified renewable energy standard), and Proposal 5 (tax limitation) all passed, “I was going to move out of the state – I’m not kidding.”
“We would have been doomed,” the Snyder ally said. “Higher costs and stronger bargaining power for public sector labor combined with higher energy costs combined with no ability to ever raise revenue or do anything with the tax code, or do anything in terms of public investments ... No business would have wanted to come here or expand here and no young person would have wanted to stay here.”
Still, voters shouldn’t expect Tuesday’s results to rein in ballot proposal initiatives in the future.
“People have short memories,” said David Waymire, partner at Lansing-based Martin Waymire Advocacy Communications, which has worked both to pass and defeat ballot proposals over the years, including this year’s Proposal 5.
“The basic reason these proposals were put on the ballot hasn’t really changed,” Waymire said. “And despite what seems to be large amounts of money, for the groups involved, they’re not large at all.”
Some ballot initiatives are motivated by lack of action or rejection of policies by the Legislature; some are viewed at least in part as a way to motivate voter turnout – an electoral version of a “loss leader” at a grocery store. Even Moroun may have gotten a return on his $38 million investment, theorizes Robinson, by delaying construction of a bridge that will compete with his Ambassador Bridge until after the election.
“I predict we’ll have another set of ballot proposals -- maybe not this many, maybe not this controversial -- in four years,” Waymire said.
If that happens, voters can expect to be flooded with even more ads than this year, whether those ads influence outcomes or not. “If there’s one lesson about 2012,” Robinson said, “it is there is more money in the system than people knew what to do with.”
Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.