The morning after

Now that the election's over, heed calls to reform the next one

Nov 7, 2012 at 12:00 am

Well, we survived it all. Just barely.

The omnipresent TV attack ads and the mailboxes overflowing with fliers and the robocalls urging us to vote this way and that.

But as the frequently noxious smoke from Election Day clears, we here at the Hits thought it might be a good idea to look at the campaign season that has just ended and help begin the debate about what might be done differently in hope of making things better the next time around.

What got us thinking along these lines was an opinion piece Phil Power wrote last month.

Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan regent who founded Center for Michigan, a self-described "nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan's dysfunctional political culture."

To that end, the center, among other things, publishes Bridge Magazine, which is where Power floated a proposal to, well, limit the proposals Michigan voters would confront in the future. 

To the consternation of some and the confusion of many, we just got done deciding the fate of five proposed amendments to the Michigan constitution.

Power's gripe?

"The terrible truth of these ballot proposals is that most of the signatures that got them on the ballot were bought and paid for by signature solicitation companies. That puts basic government policy as articulated in the constitution up for sale to the highest bidder. Michigan voters are the last line of defense against this kind of government for sale."

Given the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that, at least when it comes to politics, money and speech are interchangeable, what could we do?

Power suggests that we could at least up the ante for those trying to buy their way onto the ballot by making it illegal to pay people for each petition signature gathered. People could still be paid to collect names, they just couldn't be paid a buck or two per name, as they are now, and would have to be paid an hourly rate instead.

According to the nonprofit group Citizens in Charge, which is promoting the idea, in states where such bans have been passed, "the cost of successfully completing a petition drive has risen considerably, sometimes more than doubling."

At this point, we're not willing to sign onto the idea, but would like to see a vigorous debate over its pros and cons. 

What's more, Power tells us the debate shouldn't be limited to just this one idea, or even the issue of ballot proposals in general. What he'd like to see is a debate seeking clear-cut solutions to a host of election issues.

"The hope is to provoke a thoughtful discussion ... once all the sound and fury is over," he says.

One thing Rich Robinson would like to see are new laws that strengthen disclosure of campaign funding sources.

Robinson heads the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a watchdog group that tries to keep track of the money used to influence the outcome of elections. The problem, he says, are lax disclosure laws that can sometimes make that job completely impossible.

He says that, since 2000, more than $80 million from undisclosed sources has been spent on television advertising intended to influence the state's voters. 

"And that's a conservative estimate," he tells us.

For starters, that $80 million is for television alone. Add in radio, print advertising, mailers and robocalls and it quickly becomes apparent that we are inundated by advertising intended to influence the way we vote without letting us know who exactly is trying to do the influencing.

Robinson calls it "dark money," and is adamant that it's critical to start shedding much-needed light on it. 

(A recent, typically excellent Frontline investigation on PBS titled "Big Sky, Big Money" offers a chilling, detailed account of how the issue of dark money has played out in Montana, with a focus on how the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United decision has played out in that state.)

Part of the problem is that certain categories of nonprofit organizations can run so-called "issue ads" that don't specifically say vote for or against a particular candidate or ballot measure but, in reality, are clearly designed to influence how someone decides to vote. And those same nonprofits, which can be created at will, with nothing more than an untraceable post office box as an address, are not required to publicly disclose where their money comes from.

This is no way to run a democracy.


News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected].