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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2012/11/perhaps-it%e2%80%99s-time-to-leave-constitutional-amendments-to-the-legislature/
20 November 2012
A few final takeaways from the November election:
Representative democracy is generally more effective than direct democracy.
In 2010, voter turnout was 43 percent and an older, whiter Michigan electorate wiped out the majority that Democrats had built in the Michigan House in the previous two elections. On Nov. 6, turnout by a younger, more diverse electorate jumped up to an estimated 64 percent and Democrats gained back five seats.
It still wasn’t sufficient for a majority, but if Democratic constituencies had plowed the millions they spent on 2012 ballot initiatives into a turnout effort that would have limited legislative losses in 2010, Democrats would have retained the House two years ago, perhaps had not dug themselves so deep a hole in the Senate and made those initiatives unnecessary. And the playing field would have been leveled in a redistricting process in 2011 that will now benefit the Michigan Republican Party for the next four cycles.
Though it takes longer and involves more effort, the Obama campaign proved that turnout proficiency matters more than last-minute TV ads. If Michigan Democrats had absorbed that lesson from the 2008 campaign in 2010, they’d still be running the House. And if they had had more effective, sustained messaging this year, they’d have won back more than five seats two weeks ago.
Based on the unofficial tally of total votes cast for House Democratic candidates by East Lansing consultant Alan Fox, House Democratic candidates collectively received 177,000 fewer votes than President Obama and 348,000 fewer votes than U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. The drop-off between GOP House candidates and Mitt Romney was only 76,000 votes.
Transparency is not only vital, it’s easy.
Technology and existing campaign finance law allow the public to know right away how much money is being raised by Lansing’s politicians and judges and from whom, but only in the weeks before an election when late contribution and 24-hour expenditure filings are required.
So when legislators file their last statement for the cycle on Jan. 31, they won’t have to submit another one for another 12 months, even though campaign checks are cashed just about every day the Legislature is in session. Lawmakers exempt themselves and their contributors from real-time disclosure because it helps perpetuate the fiction that there is separation between soliciting funds from groups and the crafting of legislation that impacts them.
But at least there will be disclosure, eventually.
Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network estimates that, at a minimum, 75 percent of the more than $15 million spent boosting the candidacies of Michigan Supreme Court candidates will remain hidden under the shroud of a 2004 secretary of state finding that continues to mistakenly characterize such spending as issue advocacy. That means the money poured into the political parties to finance TV, radio and mail need not be disclosed because federal courts have held that issue advocacy is a form of grass-roots lobbying.
A lawyer who tried to lobby a justice would face disciplinary action. But a client with an appeal in the pipeline can write a million-dollar check to buy advertising in pursuit of a more understanding high court majority and the public would never know. Nor would they have cause to suspect that the money actually bought an outcome.
Re-regulating independent advertising could wind up reducing the amounts of money now being spent. The forced disclosure of unseemly amounts of corporate, union and individual giving would make the appearance of corruption too embarrassing. Presumably.
Is it time to protect the constitution by amending it?
There are three avenues for amending the Michigan Constitution.
1. With the unlikely consent of the people, call a constitutional convention. History suggests the 148 delegates, one elected from each legislative district, would be among the smartest and most experienced public policy hands in the state.
2. Propose to voters an amendment crafted by nonpartisan legislative legal staff and approved by two-thirds, bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate.
3. Spend a million dollars to pay petition circulators to gather enough valid signatures in support of whatever technically sound constitutional change you desire, no matter how broad or narrow in scope. Then spend millions to persuade voters that the measure isn’t craven self-interest masquerading as good government.
There are two sections of the constitution that give voters a direct say in Michigan’s legal framework. One permits public initiation or repeal of state statute. The other allows the public to add or delete constitutional amendments. The latter does have a higher signature collection threshold, which, given the business of signature collecting, is no hurdle at all.
Now the broad rejection of proposed constitutional changes on Nov. 6 could mean voters can be trusted to protect the state’s guiding document. But you also can point to instances where that might have not been the case, such as when voters approved term limits, prohibited any consideration of race in college admissions and restricted the rights of gay couples.
So perhaps the time is right to ask voters to consider a change that preserves their option to amend statute, but restricts the writing of constitutional amendments to the Legislature. Or, of course, a constitutional convention.
Otherwise, anyone with enough cash and an economic interest to protect or a social view to cement can buy a 100-word description on the ballot.
Peter Luke was a Lansing correspondent for Booth Newspapers for nearly 25 years, writing a weekly column for most of that time with a concentration on budget, tax and economic development policy issues. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University.