October 2015

October 1, 2015

One doesn't have to look to the national landscape to see what has given rise to the mavericks and political outsiders – on either side of the aisle – as the current presidential contest unfolds ahead of the official 2016 election.

The frustration of the electorate, regardless of class, that has propelled to the head of the polls the likes of Donald Trump, Ben Carson or Bernie Sanders started to rear its head in Michigan years ago just as the Great Recession was taking hold. 

But leaders in the state could read the tea leaves as well as anyone else and moved several years ago to tamp down any uprising against the powers that be as they have done for several decades under a variety of gubernatorial and legislative leaders in some subtle and not so subtle ways.

The boldest move that has taken place occurred late in 2012, when lawmakers adopted and Gov. Snyder signed into law, the latest set of changes to the Michigan recall law in the state, a restriction of the rights of the electorate that has been going on for decades.

Let's look at a bit of history. Take yourself back to the late 1970's and early 1980's period when Michigan was facing a growing budget deficit that was projected to be nearly $1.7 billion, as former Michigan congressional Rep. James Blanchard, a Democrat from Oakland County, was elected governor of Michigan. 

One of the first things he did as part of what many consider an innovative and still nationally heralded turnaround for the state – with Democrats controlling both chambers of the legislature – was to raise the state income tax, which in turn led to the recall, a first for Michigan, of Pontiac-based state Senator Phil Mastin, who voted for the tax increase.

The Mastin recall was part of a general tax reform and anti-government fever that had taken hold at the time and it included upheaval in more than one local government in the state and Oakland County. It was a period of political turmoil that gave us folks like tax reform advocate Robert Tisch, the Shiawassee County Drain Commissioner, and eventually the tax limitation amendment from Richard Headlee, the Farmington insurance executive. It was also a period marked by the start of a series of changes to the state's recall law to make it more difficult to remove elected officials from office during non-election years, as only those in power are capable and inclined to do as a matter of self preservation, much like today.

Our right to recall public officials was enshrined in the 1963 Michigan Constitution. As written, we could recall a local, county or state official and it was allowed that the grounds could be “political rather than a judicial question.” But as the threat of recall grew in the late 1970's and the recession of the 1980's, lawmakers saw fit over time to start changing the rules of the game to make it increasingly difficult to remove someone from office.

Now move forward to the last decade in which, according to a Citizens Research Council (CRC) study released in 2012, recalls across Michigan have been on the increase. In the 12-year period of 2000 through 2011, there have been 457 state and local recall attempts, 89 percent of which threatened local officials. Of that total, one-third of the recalls efforts were for alleged improper conduct and one-third focused on policy matters not considered financial in nature.

Although the CRC report hesitates to ascribe a clear connection to a downturn in the economy, certainly the 2008 market collapse seems to have helped increase the number of recall attempts in Michigan, which has long been considered to be underperforming economically when stacked up against other states in the nation. And it's hard to argue that an economic downturn does not have an effect on the number of recalls when CRC figures show that since 2000, recall attempts in the state are increasing and 46 percent of attempts have been successful.

Let's examine the actions of state leaders – where once again one party holds the executive branch and both the House and Senate – which culminated with the adoption and enactment of Act 417 of 2012.

The latest changes to the recall law shortened – from 90 days to 60 days – the time allowed to circulate a petition to place a recall question on the ballot. The recall reforms also extended from six months to one year after taking office a protection period during which an elected official with a four-year term of office could not be recalled. Similarly, under previous law an official could not be recalled the last six months in office. Now, those with four-year terms cannot be recalled during the last year in office.

Recall elections will now only be allowed during two specific months of the year.

To further tighten down the screws, the new law has changed long-held verbiage that a petition has to be reviewed by county election officials to prove “sufficient clarity.” Now it will be reviewed and must be approved with reasons that are “factually and clearly” stated, just another hurdle for those seeking to remove someone from office.

But the toughest challenge to recall proponents is the change whereby you will no longer be voting on a simple recall question in the voting booth. Under the 2012 changes, there will now be an opponent to the person being recalled on the ballot, much like a normal election, which many claim will only confuse voters who are accustomed to showing up at the polls to pull the lever for recalling a targeted official. Now, if you pull the lever for the official under threat of recall, you will actually be casting a ballot for them to stay in office. 

Confusing? You bet. Exactly what state officials had hoped when they made the changes to state election laws governing recalls, no matter what anyone supporting this electorate suppression effort tells you otherwise. 

What is the impact of the recall election law changes? Just look at Bloomfield Township, where some residents have raised questions about attempting to remove embattled township treasurer Dan Devine who seems to dig a deeper hole for himself each passing month with his performance in office, alleged failure to even show at the office, and his disruptive political shenanigans that have left the township in turmoil. Voters have been disenfranchised by the changes to the law governing a recall, which was virtually impossible to attempt in Devine's case given what is currently on the books. 

Is it any wonder that an anti-government fervor is picking up steam and could propel into office someone considered an “outsider” to the political establishment as voters trudge to the polls next year? Officials from both political parties have brought this uprising on themselves. 


David Hohendorf
Publisher
DavidHohendorf@downtownpublications.com

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