Political reformers, with hardly a friend across the aisle, press on in Michigan

Even before the snows of last year’s interminable winter melted, Michigan residents knew what they wanted from their legislature: A fix for the state’s deplorable roads. It was one of the most agreed-upon points of the Center for Michigan’s 2014 “Michigan Speaks” agenda for the coming election, and the focus of a billboard campaign.

But when the Legislature adjourned for the summer, it still had no deal to get the job done. with the Republican-run Senate, averse to raising taxes in heavily Republican districts in an election year, couldn’t muster the funds for roads.

Whether that is a function of politics as usual or evidence of a bigger problem, like the state’s longstanding system for setting district boundaries, is open to debate.

But while Michigan continues to give ruling political parties control of district lines, some states are trying fresh approaches.

Enter California.

When California was preparing to convene its first citizens’ redistricting commission, following the 2008 passage of the ballot initiative known as Proposition 11, the process to choose eight commissioners began with a call for applicants. Kathay Feng, executive director of Common Cause California and someone who had seen the process of reform grind on for years, hoped maybe 500 Californians would apply for the eight-member commission.

Thirty thousand submitted applications.

To Feng and others, including many Republicans who supported Prop 11 – which led to a redrawing of the state’s congressional and legislative districts by the nonpartisan commission – the outpouring was proof of the thirst for political change. There was “this fundamental feeling that redistricting is too much the plaything of people who are self-interested in the outcome,” Feng said. “Regular citizens have their voices and choices taken from them.”

Whether the same frustration exists in Michigan is an open question. To some Democrats, Michigan needs not only redistricting reform, but also needs to tune up election practices, enact campaign finance reform and improve its procedures for selecting judges. Many Republicans, who are generally benefiting from the status quo at the moment, see less of a need. Can voters be persuaded? No one knows.

Democrat Jocelyn Benson, dean of the Wayne State University Law School and a long-time advocate of grassroots political reform, said she is hopeful. Michigan, she said, has “fallen behind other states in the last decade,” and not just reform-minded California.

Controversies like the 2000 Florida recount, and irregularities in Ohio voting in the 2004 presidential race, haven’t happened here yet. But they could. And if one does, it could be the impetus for reform in one area.

“Bush v. Gore was really the turning point for attention on the voting process,” said Benson, who ran unsuccessfully for the Michigan Secretary of State’s office in 2010. But people from both parties need to become more engaged and demand change, she added, ensuring that “whoever is in power has no incentive to change the rules of the game.”

Mark Grebner, president of Practical Political Consulting in Lansing and a longtime observer of the state’s political structure, said state Republican leaders, who control the House, Senate and Governor’s office, are reluctant to talk about the kind of political reform that drives Democrats. While progressives talk about the need to more fairly draw legislative districts and make it easier for residents to vote, Republicans are more likely to see reform in the context of squelching voter fraud and rethinking how the state’s electoral votes are apportioned in presidential elections. All of which makes a bipartisan legislative consensus more wishful thinking than war-room plotting.

Republican lawmakers have been successful at tightening restrictions on voting, passing laws requiring photo ID and curtailing early and weekend voting in some states.  Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  The decision removed nine states and many counties and municipalities from federal oversight, and was cheered by Republicans as a sign that the country has recovered from the racial discrimination that made the Voting Rights Act necessary.

“There are folks in the legislature who are absolutely not interested in real reform,” said Jan BenDor, statewide coordinator for the nonpartisan Michigan election Reform Alliance, reeling off a list of complaints: Aging voting machines, poorly trained poll workers, an unclear mandate to police election law, just to start.

“It’s frustrating, trying to keep up with states that are making progress,” she said, adding that the state should be investigating such reforms as online registration, no-reason absentee voting (residents currently qualify for absentee ballots only if they are unable to vote because of a specific list of reasons), even same-day registration, changes generally backed by Democrats.

Nationally, nine states have passed laws in the last two years, generally making voting more difficult.

Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has said she would be open to both online registration and no-reason absentee voting, but no legislation has been introduced this past session.

Movement on federal districts

There is talk of changing how federal legislative districts are drawn in Michigan. Redistricting occurs after each U.S. Census, which won’t happen for six more years. But there is talk, in very preliminary stages, of a ballot proposal to form an independent citizens’ commission, like California’s, to take over the chore.

Susan Smith, president of the Michigan chapter of the League of Women Voters, said the group is “exploring the issue with others who are interested,” but that it would be premature to discuss details. But in general, Smith said, the LWV believes “current district lines (have) resulted in a situation where the voters are not fairly repr:esented.”

Redistricting, no matter which party controls it, usually seeks to cement incumbent advantage and disadvantage opponents. Democrats outnumber Republicans statewide, a fact reflected in recent statewide elections: Barack Obama carried the state by nearly 450,000 votes in 2012, and both of its U.S. senators are Democrats. Debbie Stabenow defeated Pete Hoekstra by 21 percentage points the same year. But redistricting that followed the 2010 census, when the state lost one congressional representative, resulted in a new map that allowed Republicans to capture nine of 14 seats, which Dems attributed to the evils of partisan redistricting, but others said could also be explained by demographics and geography (Democrats are more inclined to live in concentrated urban areas).

“When you look at how many people voted Democrat and Republican, the actual proportion in the U.S. congress and state legislature don’t really reflect that,” said Smith.

New districts include the 14th Congressional District in the Detroit area, which includes the upscale, white Grosse Pointes on Lake St. Clair in eastern Wayne County, and the largely African-American working-class city of Pontiac in Oakland County, nearly 40 miles away. Along the way, it dips south to include the Democratic-leaning Downriver suburbs of Detroit, then cuts north to run along 8 Mile Road and collect Southfield en route to Pontiac.

It’s an oddly-shaped configuration that regularly lands it on lists of the country’s most-gerrymandered districts. It is solidly, almost entirely Democratic; Rep. Gary Peters won the general election with more than 82 percent of the November 2012 vote (he is now running for U.S. Sentate).

Other districts in the area were similarly redrawn to make them safe for Republicans, including the 11th, which received national attention in 2012 when Kerry Benvolio, a heretofore unknown Republican, was easily elected after incumbent Thaddeus McCotter flamed out in a signature-gathering scandal.

It’s the sort of thing that makes Joseph Schwarz irritable. The Republican former congressman, state senator and Battle Creek mayor points to the 14th as Exhibit A in the case for redistricting reform in Michigan.

“The first rule one should follow is to draw the line in accordance with common community interest,” he said. But the rule that is followed is common party interest, Schwarz said, and while both parties do it, and have for decades, it’s time for it to stop.

Not so fast, says Bob LaBrant, a Lansing-based Republican strategist. Other factors are at play in explaining how some districts are drawn, including the Voting Rights Act. Southeast Michigan has always had two so-called majority minority districts, and due to the depopulation of Detroit, those districts have had to be redrawn to encompass where African Americans and other people of color have chosen to live. Hence the 14th.

“What I find most telling (about the latest redistricting) is that no lawsuits were filed,” LaBrant said, which suggests no Democrats thought they could successfully challenge newly drawn districts in court.

(A bill introduced last year by Kalamazoo Democrat Rep. Sean McCann to establish an independent redistricting commission in Michigan went nowhere.)

As long as one party has a hold on the governor’s office, the legislature and the state Supreme Court, there’s little motivation for the Legislature to change redistricting, Joe Schwarz said.

“Reasonable people should speak up because (right now) there are no races,” said Schwarz. “The incumbent is going to win reelection every time. But a good race brings good candidates out to run. We need competitive congressional districts. We need competitive legislative districts.”

Political cash stays secret

And, Schwarz said, Michigan needs campaign finance reform that allows for more transparency in how money is spent in political campaigns, though there is little to suggest that will happen soon in Michigan.

Gov. Snyder signed a bill last year that doubles the amount donors can give to campaigns, while protecting the anonymity of those who donate for so-called issue ads – not formally connected to individual candidates, but often strongly supportive of them – which have become major players in political campaigns.

In doing so, Snyder and the legislature thwarted the Republican secretary of state; Johnson had announced she wanted to force anonymous donors to reveal themselves earlier in the process, after which the legislature added language to the bill to prevent it.

To LaBrant, Democrats’ concerns over issue advertising is so much hand-wringing.

“The Democrats invented soft money and the issue ad. (Former state Democratic party chairman) Mark Brewer perfected issue ads with the ‘sleeping judge’ ad used against Cliff Taylor. The best way to deal with it is to do your own, and not engage in unilateral disarmament.”

Rich Robinson, of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said whether voters care about the issue remains to be seen:

“When the legislature and the governor blocked Ruth Johnson's proposed transparency initiative, it was done without a single Democratic vote. Republicans own that action completely. They are the champions and protectors of money laundering in state politics. Will Democrats make it an issue? If they do, will it have salience with voters? I don't know, but I think we are fools to accept politics with so little transparency. Government works for those who pay for it. Those who are driving the process should be made to stand up in public and accept the attention they deserve.”

Benson said other states are surging ahead of Michigan. Besides California’s redistricting commission, Colorado passed a package of measures that allow voters choices in how and when to vote, including by mail.

Grebner said such changes are potentially game-changers for the entire country, noting that being able to cast a secret ballot was one such reform, adopted nationally over a 10-year period in the late 19th Century.

“You used to vote in public, and announced your choice,” said Grebner. “The system was inherently corrupt – it was all based on bribes. What was the political movement that brought that change about? It’s an amazing reform. We could never go back.”

Reform is complicated by the fact the U.S. is a big country, with 50 states that are still quite different from one another. But presidential elections are national events, and can drive states toward consistency and shared ideas of reform, Grebner said.

“Every state has spent 150 years developing its own weird history, so a primary in Michigan and a primary in Wisconsin have nothing to do with each other. But the ideas can move across state lines. The primary is an innovation from 1908, but by 1912 it had swept across the country. It was an idea whose time had come.”

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Thu, 06/19/2014 - 8:56am
Lots of points raised in this article. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the State, but we do not elect representatives statewide. Whites outnumber blacks, so following the logic here, should we have only a fraction of a representative who is minority? One fundamental "districting" driver is the requirement of :minority" districts to ensure minority representation. It skews the map at a starting point. (By the way, the party out of power is usually the one that raises concerns about the fairness of the process.) Voting is a privilege and the voting process should be as accommodating as reasonable for all eligible voters. The trouble is we have lots of evidence across the country of voter fraud (nothing new) and so ensuring that only eligible voters vote is important. We regularly restrict actions to eligible individuals (e.g. ensuring that only ticket holders get on a plane). Reasonable restrictions to ensure "fairness" are not unreasonable by definition. Fundamentally, what is the difference between ten people contributing $100 to a PAC and leadership lobbying that contribution and one person contributing $1000? The principle is the same. If we watch the demagoguery that has befallen the Koch brothers by the Democratic party, its no wonder people want confidentially. Finally, I wouldn't point to California as a beacon of enlightenment. They have repeatedly shown a lack of appreciation for reality in their legislative processes. Voting is an important issue. Rather than worry about district lines, we'd be better off educating our population on civic responsibility.
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 10:47am
Please back up your statements with facts. You claim there is "lots of evidence across the country of voter fraud ". However, I have yet to see any real evidence to support this claim that is made over and over again by people trying to suppress the vote.
Sat, 06/21/2014 - 10:45pm
Yes, I have also in seen in shown with criminal convictions on the evening news. What is disappointing it that you don't feel that those who lawfully vote should have their votes protected so they recieve the full impact of a legal vote.
Mike R
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 3:25pm
Tom, please stop making up "facts" and insulting our intelligence with glibness: (1) Every single study and statistic compiled by governments both state and federal show that voter fraud is nearly non-existent in this country as a percentage of the number of voters. So the sudden crusade against it clearly is motivated by something else. (2) The last time I checked, voting is a fundamental right, not a privilege. (3) To answer your specific question, let's not play stupid here. There may not be a big difference between ten people contributing $100 and one person contributing $1,000, but there's huge difference between two brothers contributing $100 million dollars, and a million people each contributing $100: a candidate may not feel beholden to a million people (unfortunately for the electorate), but he/she certainly will bow down to the two or three people giving the same amount. (4) I'd love to see more education about civic responsibility, but unfortunately the Republican legislature and governor are starving public education in order to enrich private for-profit schools.
Sat, 06/21/2014 - 10:42pm
Mike, Having seen election fraud at a very early age it is hard for me to be as cavalier as you about the risk of fraud. It turned an election so fraud is a real concern. Voter was documented in Ohio how one person voted repeatedly for several relatives and acquantences. Voter fraud doesn't have to a broad conspiracy to affect elections and undermined people's confidence in the voting process. Analogy; simply because we haven't had a terrorist attack in Michigan doesn't mean we shouldn't put in place procedures to prevent it from happening. It doesn't mean pictured ID should not be required to board an airplane or even enter a government facility. Since I didn't sacrifice like those who formed this country to include voting I believe it is a privilege to excersize that right. Having seen those people in Iraq proud hold their dyed finger aloft to show that they had voted, they confirmed to me that voting is a privelege. As for the dollars spent on campaigns, I am much more skeptical of the impact on elections. It seems only a bit over week ago we saw a nationally known candidate that had millions spent in support of his electon defeated by a guy who had less than a couple of thousand dollars. Back to my youth I the personal contact that union members made in support of a candidate much more effective than the money spent on campaign advertising. A billboard maybe an efficient way to spend money but I am not as sure as you are that it actually changes a vote. Just as you don't want to hear what Tom has said and are not moved by it so do I believe that the TV ads are resonded to in the same way, people hear only what they are listening for so if people don't want to hear what is being said they won't and it can't change what they want to do. You will not hear anything I have written because it doesn't fit you model, what you want to hear. You will say my examples of fraud are so small that it isn't worth the effort. You will say that rights are most important and nothing should be done that you view would discourage the people from voting. Even though they are unlikely to vote in this coming election and they only vote when others make a special effort to get them to the polls rather then trusting to those voters commitment to vote. You will say that the Rep Cantor election was a fluke and is too small to be counted as the same as what the Koch borthers spend. I believe that each fraudulent vote diminishes our right to vote. I believe that the excersizing of each of our rights are a privilege that others have sacrificed so we can use them. I believe that each person is responsible to make our own choices when we vote and use whatever information we deem appropriate.
Sun, 06/22/2014 - 6:50pm
Yahoo for you, Mike! You said what needed to be said,
Big D
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 9:10am
"Reform" is another word that has been mangled beyond recognition by the left. ...add it to "change", "fairness" and "rights". If you think that voter id is discriminatory, the all your other ideas are automatically suspect. Get real. Voter ID is characterized as "making voting more difficult" rather than "making voter fraud more difficult". We see here a wish list of the liberals not in power.
Sun, 06/22/2014 - 6:54pm
How about citing the specific number, state-wide, of incidents of voter fraud in the last five years, please! I challenge you to cite those tremendous numbers!!!
Chuck Morton
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 9:37am
While on the subject of election reform, let's not leave out term limits for senators, representatives, and supreme court judges and other judges. We limit the terms of the president and our elected officials in Michigan. I think it has worked very well here and is strongly supported by the Michigan populace. Why not extend term limits to federal elected officials? This would be a return to "citizen representatives" rather than "professional politicians." I think there would be a greater emphasis on doing what is best for the country rather than on doing what is best for getting re-elected!
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 10:35am
Yada Yada Yada. The whole process is screwed up. When "we" decided that capitalism was better than democracy. The Supreme Court confirmed that when they said that corporations are living, breathing beings. We enact voter ID laws, not because there is rampant voter fraud, but to make it more difficult for segments of our society to vote. We pass wolf hunting legislation, not because there is a serious problem with wolves, but based on the outright LIES of ONE individual. Still waiting for the Governor to ask the legislature to repeal it and the Attorney General to pursue legal action for giving false and misleading testimony. Oh, and by the way, is there ANYONE with enough backbone in Lansing to get the roads fixed? I think not.
Gene Markel
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 11:50am
Does the candidate who raises the most money win the election? Does the candidate who has the best staff for media influence and PR win the the election? What do those who contribute vast somes of money expect in return? What do staffers expect in return for their contribution to a win? Is the politician beholding to do the bidding of the wealthy contributor? Is the politicaian obligated to appoint those staffers to positions of power? What is the politicians obiugations to the voter who placed him or her in office? How important is it to the politician to be reelected? These are questions that need to be answered by the politician. What is the record of voter fraud in Michigan? How many have been prosecuted and convicted if the last two election cycles?
Charles Richards
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 2:48pm
Ms. Derrnger notes approvingly the adoption of the secret ballot, but then objects to the non-disclosure of political contributions. Doesn't she recall Proposition 8 (the referendum on gay marriage) in California? Partisans who opposed it compiled "black lists" of those who supported it from public records. Does she approve? And there have been numerous cases around the country of people engaging in personal and economic retribution against those who disagreed with them on a political issue. Does she approve? Or does she feel that is legitimate political activity? And what value does transparency add? Floyd Abrams, the famous First Amendment lawyer, says that states that allow corporate donations to state campaigns do not have any more corruption than states that don't. And what significant information would disclosure provide the voter? Suppose that a corporation or wealthy individual is advocating a measure that would significantly benefit them, but would also provide substantial benefits to the community at large? What is important, the private or public benefit? Suppose that a measure on the state ballot would generate a large profit for a corporation, but would also generate twenty times as much benefit for the state in terms of jobs, economic activity and tax revenue? What counts is whether a measure benefits the state as a whole. Unless, out of an abundance of envy, a voter is willing to cut off his nose to spite his face. Surely, a rational, informed voter can decide whether a policy would benefit the state as a whole. Ms. Derringer tells us much about California's redistricting commission (of which I wholly approve). But she failed to mention what may be an equally important reform. They now hold a single open primary in which all candidates from both parties run on a single ballot. The two top vote getters, even if they are both Republicans or Democrats, run in the general election. This tends to drive political debate toward the center and empower moderates. Voters are much less likely to be faced with an unpalatable choice between two candidates from the extreme wings of their respective parties. Such a primary in Michigan would compel candidates to appeal to all voters and sharply ameliorate our partisan divide.
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 10:13pm
It seems there is a lot of conjecture, a lot of possible because of what happened elsewhere, but there doesn't seem to be specific examples of those problems in Michigan. There are no examples of how the current drawing of districts has created any laws or programs that violated existing laws, the state or federal constitution. Without such problems the only reason I can find for the proposed solutions is that the proponents want it not that the state needs it. Similarly the claims of state wide voting results compared to district voting results show no examples how individual voter rights have been violated. There are no examples of how redistricting has somehow entered the voting booth and made voters vote certain ways based on what district they are in. The justification also seems to discount the voters' choices of the individual candidates or familiarity with the candidates. As best I can tell there were many non-Democrats that voted for President Obama, something the article fails to mention. I wonder why the US Senator and President state wide elections are relevant, but the Governor, Sec of State, Attorney General Elections are not. I am curious why such obvious facts were not included. It is possible that the Bridge Editorial staff felt the article was too long and they removed them, surely it wouldn’t be because they were an inconvenient truth. I am a strong supporter of change, but before I am willing to give that support I want to understand what the real problem is that change will be addressing and why it will fix that problem, and what are the potential unintended consequences.
David States
Sat, 06/21/2014 - 9:09am
What about "top two" primary races such as California has implemented? The top two finishers in an open primary face off in the general election regardless of party affiliation., The chances that a moderate candidate will be available as a choice in the general election is greatly increased. This has done a huge amount to break partisan gridlock and polarization in California. The productivity of the Michigan legislature would benefit significantly and moderate voters would be far better represented.
Sun, 06/22/2014 - 11:49am
No David, what broke the partisan deadlock in CA wasn't any reforms passed. The State is run by 100% Democratic Pols, with super majorities in both houses and the Governor. Guess what, no gridlock only discussion is only to what degree to proceed! Similarly Detroit politicians had little opposition to hold them back. Most "reforms" have the effect of maintaining power (limiting opposition) for existing politicians and their constituencies. The best that can be hoped for is that voters will give them the credit or the blame, time will tell.