Politics and Prejudices: Stopping more people from voting

Jul 1, 2015 at 1:00 am

If you know anything about state government, you know that our elections are shamefully rigged, and most policy is written or heavily influenced by the emissaries of the super-rich and special interests in our pay-to-play political culture.

What I mean by "rigged" is that district boundaries have been outrageously drawn by complete partisans to send a majority of Republicans to both houses of the legislature, even if — as is often the case — a majority of voters cast their ballots for Democrats.

It gets worse from there. When a new legislator of either party gets to Lansing, he or she is met by an army of lobbyists only too eager to "help" them figure out the issues and how to vote.

Thanks to term limits, when freshmen get there they find that nobody else has been in office for more than four years anyway. The lobbyists, however, have often been there for decades. Before long, the member figures out that these nice new friends will also provide campaign contributions if he votes the way they want him to.

They also realize they will turn off the money tap and may help their opponents if he defies them.

If that weren't bad enough, the lobbyists have another way of controlling our lawmakers. Thanks to the nutty system of term limits misguided voters chose in the 1990s, the maximum any lawmaker can stay is six years in the House; eight in the state Senate.

Then they can never come back, as long as they live. That means most of them are going to need jobs.

Voting the lobbyists' way may help make that possible. (Remember my favorite example, state Rep. Paul Opsommer. After working hard to try and block a new bridge across the Detroit River, he left the legislature and went to work for Matty Moroun.)

Yes, you'd think life was pretty sweet for our lawmakers, especially the Republicans, who have managed to rig the system to keep themselves pretty much perpetually in power, especially in the state Senate. But last week there was what must have seemed a new threat: Two Republican women actually suggested we should try a tiny bit of democracy! State Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons introduced a bill to allow anyone who wants an absentee ballot to get one, long as they show ID. Actually, this is what most states have had for years.

In today's fast-paced society, it makes a lot of sense; people don't have time to stand in line for sometimes hours. Even worse, it's impossible for anyone to cast an intelligent vote on all the dozens of races and proposals while standing in a voting booth.

Absentee ballots make so much sense that these days Colorado, Oregon, and Washington state require every voter to vote absentee. Thirty-three other states let anyone have one who wants one. In Michigan, however, you pretty much have to know you'll be out of town, over 60, or in jail, to qualify for an absentee ballot.

Two-thirds of the states also allow early voting, unlike Michigan. That means they allow people to come to the polling places and vote on a number of different days before Election Day, something that also makes sense, if we really do want people to participate.

But that's just what the toxic creatures who run our state Senate don't want. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, a bully with barely a high school education, has as much contempt for democracy as he does for unions and the workingman. (His big cause is stopping the state from paying union wages to workers on state construction jobs.)

Meekhof snorted that he wants nothing to do with making it easier for people to get absentee ballots. "They should be responsible enough to make sure they get to their own polling place," he sneered. "I think that's the least we can ask."

His acolyte, state Sen. Dave Robertson, a former insurance salesman from the Flint area, was even worse. Robertson, who chairs the Elections and Government Reform Committee, said he wouldn't even allow hearings on the absentee ballot bill.

Asked why, he raved incoherently about Election Day being a "focal point" and then said he thought absentee ballots were bad because those using them missed out on a few days of a campaign.

The truth is, of course, that they know the more people vote, the less well right-wing Republicans do. They want to do everything they can not only to rig the results, but to suppress the actual vote.

Any wonder that Michigan is in the state it's in?

Speaking of the bridge

Mayor Mike Duggan made a stunning deal with Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun in late April. The city would give him the three acres of Riverside Park he would need to build a second bridge next to the one he's got.

In return, Moroun would have to give Detroit five acres of riverfront property the city wants, spend $3 million to fix up the park, give Detroit another $2 million when the land changes hands, and put precisely 1,050 windows in the old ruined Michigan Central Depot.

Though many were appalled that Duggan was dealing with the devil, or at least Detroit's least civic-minded citizen, it seemed to me Detroit was getting the better deal. Canada, after all, will never allow Moroun to build a second bridge no matter how much land he has. (They may eventually allow the 88-year-old plutocrat, or his heirs, to tear down the aging Ambassador and build a replacement bridge.)

But in any event, the deal specified that Moroun didn't get the land until he'd lived up to his promises. And nearly everything is in shape to start construction of the new Gordie Howe International Bridge two miles downriver.

There was, however, one hidden drawback: former Gov. James Blanchard, who has been working hard to make the Howe bridge a reality, tells me that Duggan's footsie with Moroun has proved problematic in attracting some of the investors the Howe bridge needs.

Some were worried that there might be a competing bridge after all. Duggan, by the way, tells me he was fully committed to the Howe bridge, although he thinks a replacement span for the Ambassador makes sense.

Despite assurances, last week, attorneys for City Council urged their clients to be extremely cautious in making any deal with Moroun.

The worry seems to center on an old warehouse on the land Moroun will be giving to the city. It has one tenant with a lease, and as a result, the place can't be demolished until at least 2018.

That's a legitimate worry, since Moroun has a long record of not living up to his agreements. There's a simple solution, however, that Duggan appears to have figured out: Get the money for the demolition, etc., up front. Then, the city should be good to go.

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