To help set the stage for this month's column, I have been following politics in Oakland and the state of Michigan since the mid-1970s. I throw that out as a point of information in this election year because, I humbly submit, I have one of the better grasps of how government – be it at the local, county or state level – does or should function. A student of government. A political junkie.
My decades of observation, combined with years of experience on the part of others here, assures that when Downtown newsmagazine weighs-in with editorial opinion on a current day issue or a candidate, what we offer as advice on a topic comes with a good amount of research and a healthy does of historical perspective.
No, we don't consider our opinion the be-all and end-all on any given topic, because we recognize we are just one of many voices in the community. Thanks to the rise of the internet and the accompanying proliferation of opinion-makers, publication opinion pages probably carry less influence than they did when I first started in this profession. We do guesstimate, in response to a common question we often get, that we still have a one to three percent impact if we are throwing our support behind a ballot issue or candidate in a dead heat when votes are cast. But the days of press lords controlling an election and single-handedly setting the public agenda have long passed.
Today, at least in the tri-county area of southeast Michigan, there are only a few metro area publications that still carry editorial opinion pages, the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News come to mind first. Most non-daily publications would rather avoid the grief, are ill-equipped to weigh-in, or fear for their bottom line if they offend the wrong advertiser.
All of this serves as background for my disappointment in the last couple of weeks with an election-related editorial appearing in The Detroit News recommending that voters reject all three of the state-wide ballot issues they will face in the November 6 general election.
The three constitutional amendments are: Proposal 1, legalizing recreational use of marijuana; Proposal 2, changing how legislative districts are drawn every 10 years following the latest federal census; and Proposal 3, expanding access to the voting process and making it easier to register and cast a ballot. None of the three are perfect but they represent strong proposals that we have supported on our Endnote editorial page.
Capsulized, The Detroit News' basic premise is that the three ballot proposals are amendments to the Michigan Constitution, which means that, if approved, any changes in the future would require the agreement of voters at the polling places. Further, their suggestion is that state residents should push to have these issues dealt with through their elected members of the Senate and House. Failing that, voters should replace them, says The Detroit News. Sounds simple but not realistic.
All three amendments to the constitution made the ballot through the citizen petition drive process, as allowed in 24 states in the country. A petition drive in Michigan for a constitutional amendment requires signatures equal to 10 percent of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election (315,654). And signatures can be gathered by paid firms that exist for just this purpose.
Signatures on petitions for an amendment to the constitution must be gathered within a 180-day period following approval of petition language by election officials. After signatures are gathered, the petitions must be submitted to the state 120 days in advance of an election for review and approval to appear on the ballot.
Once approved for the ballot, the state legislature has a specific time period in which lawmakers can vote to adopt similar proposals or just allow the proposals to appear on the ballot.
Here's why The Detroit News suggestion of leaving these issues to Lansing lawmakers makes little sense.
No one expected state lawmakers would approve changing the process for redrawing of political districts because the political party in power (now Republicans), which controls how districts are redrawn every 10 years, would be goring its own ox. No surprise on this one.
As for the expanded voting rights proposal, voters already went to the ballot years ago to protect straight ticket (party) voting, only to have lawmakers later vote to take away this right and prevent a referendum petition by adding an appropriation to the bill, which in Michigan prevents voters from challenging what they did. The issue was recently litigated and the courts ruled straight ticket voting could be eliminated. But that is not the only voting rights issue addressed in this proposal.
GOP lawmakers in Lansing have resisted calls for “no reason” absentee ballots, including a push in recent years by Oakland-native and Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.
Other states have for years successfully dealt with “same day” registration and other aspects of Proposal 3.
The fear by the Republican-controlled Senate and House is that the voting rights proposal could allow for better turnout at the polls (i.e. by Democrats) and would help prevent some of the voter suppression efforts on the part of GOP lawmakers in recent legislative sessions.
As for the recreational use of marijuana – go figure. It has taken the legislature over nine years (yes, years) to finalize the system to enact the medical marijuana proposal voters overwhelmingly approved in 2008. Based on that track record, it was highly unlikely anyone could rationalize with lawmakers on recreational use of marijuana, so taking the issue to the ballot is the only logical path.
As for The Detroit News' cavalier suggestion that voters disappointed in the legislature's lack of response on an issue could just replace state lawmakers – in one of the more gerrymandered states in the nation – fat chance.
So we continue to urge our readers to vote 'yes' on all three ballot proposals.
Election endorsement footnote: In our October issue we published our recommendations on general election candidates and ballot issues for the benefit of those voting by absentee ballot, a growing segment of the registered voter base. We repeat those recommendations at the back of this issue (Endnote) for those heading to the polling places on Tuesday, November 6. Lastly, a word of thanks to those who have phoned or emailed in recent weeks with appreciative comments relative to the Voter Guide we produced for the general election.