Politics & Prejudices: Fixing democracy by mail

Want to give us a chance at real democracy again? Four weeks ago, I suggested that the best way to do that was to launch a battle to get redistricting reform on next year's ballot.

Part of the reason the Michigan legislature and our representatives in Congress don't really represent us is that most of them come from districts so gerrymandered that they're truly unrepresentative of the vast majority of voters.

In other words, we have a system in which the politicians pick their voters, rather than the other way around. This is a big part of the reason our state is falling apart, and the examples are too many to count, from anti-tax Republican maniacs who won't appropriate the money to fix the roads to Democratic districts that elect and re-elect convicted felons and the senile.

Getting redistricting reform is essential. Yet there is another potential ballot measure that could be even more important, and which could open the door for redistricting reform and getting far more people involved in the process.

The concept is simple, cheap, and has been tested for years. Simply put, it would make it easier for everyone to vote, send turnout soaring, and save the state millions every election:

Voting by mail.

Seventeen years ago, that was first tried in Oregon. Voters there get a ballot in the mail two to three weeks before an election. They've got till Election Day to send it back.

When they are ready, they can put a stamp on it and mail it, or put it at no charge into any of the numerous vote collections boxes across the state, or take it to a county elections center. Anyone who feels nostalgic for the old voting booth days can also go to an elections center and mark a ballot there.

What this would mean in Michigan is that we'd all have time to carefully read the ballot, look up information on those running, and study and analyze any ballot proposals.

That would mean more intelligent voting — and based on the states that already do this, far more votes being cast.

Last year, barely 41 percent of registered Michigan voters showed up in November, in spite of hotly contested races for governor and senator. But in Oregon, turnout was an astonishing 70 percent — and that was lower than usual.

When President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, turnout in Oregon was more than 85 percent. We've never had anything like that in Michigan, because we make voting too hard.

Standing in line with your neighbors to cast a ballot may be a nice little Norman Rockwell fantasy image. But if you're a working mother in Detroit, and the lines are two hours long, what that means is you aren't going to get to vote this year.

Lots of people like that just fine, including Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, a malevolent tool of the Koch brothers. He virtually sneered earlier this year when his fellow Republican, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, suggested we at least have "no-reason" absentee voting.

That would allow anyone to get an absentee ballot who wants one. Meekhof hates the idea of making it easier for people, especially the poor and disadvantaged, to vote.

He and his buddies will never even allow such a bill to come before the legislature — which is why we need to take the power to do so away from them. And an authentic grass-roots group called Let's Vote Michigan has come up with a way to do just that. Late last month, they got petition language approved for a proposed constitutional amendment on next year's ballot.

If approved, it would make Michigan the next vote-by-mail state. Not the second, however: After Oregon started vote-by-mail, Washington state followed, and Colorado.

California is in the process of switching, and other states are likely to follow. But the right wing hates it, absolutely hates it. The more people vote, the less chance they have to win.

Colorado was pretty reliably Republican before; Bill Clinton couldn't carry it even when he was pounding poor Bob Dole. Neither could John Kerry, despite a massive effort.

But then vote-by-mail happened. Mitt Romney tried hard to win Colorado; didn't come close. He didn't even try to win Washington and Oregon. Oh, some Republicans do win statewide in all three places, but not in presidential years.

The vote-by-mail drive is happening mainly under the radar. Two weeks ago, Let's Vote Michigan's chances of making this happen were more or less cynically dismissed by the usual Lansing pundits on Tim Skubick's show Off the Record.

That's because the organizers aren't very slick or sophisticated and, above all, don't have a large interest group with a lot of money behind them. They're just ordinary people who care about their government, trying to make this happen.

Last week I talked to their coordinator, Jackie Pierce, who lives in Pellston, at the very top of the Lower Peninsula.

She isn't a fancy political consultant. She doesn't have an airplane and an expense account. She's a woman who used to manage a Jet's Pizza store, and wants a better democracy.

How bizarre. Ordinary humans thinking they have a chance to affect the political system! She isn't daunted.

"We are going to make this work," she said firmly.

Accomplishing that will, indeed, take a lot of work and dedicated volunteers. To get a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2016 ballot, they need 315,654 valid signatures. Given that some are always invalid, Let's Vote America should plan on turning in at least 400,000.

They have a six-month window to gather the signatures. If you want to help, you can check things out, learn more about it, and download a petition at letsvotemichigan.com.

For the last few years, unions have been furiously spending millions on a series of doomed ballot proposals.

They seem likely to be gearing up to try it again, perhaps to get paid sick leave or higher corporate taxes.

Worthy goals, yes. But they may just be pounding their heads against the wall, unless someone first does something to make sure it's easy for everybody to vote, with a method that gives them the time to cast intelligent, thoughtful votes.

And that would be voting by mail.

Not only would that make it much more possible for us to end gerrymandering and take back our own government, it would make the Koch brothers and those who would destroy unions and fair wages very, very mad.

Jack Lessenberry is head of the journalism program at Wayne State University and the senior political analyst for Michigan Public Radio.
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