The truth about the caucuses

Feb 11, 2004 at 12:00 am

The bottom line is, we had the second-highest turnout in history. —Gov. Jennifer Granholm, spinning nonsense


Anyone watching or reading the local news last weekend came away with the impression that the Democratic caucuses drew an enormous flood of voters who overwhelmingly picked John Kerry as their choice for president.

Misleading statements like the one above from our always warm and bubbly governor were parroted on election night by young reporters who hadn’t done their homework, and didn’t know any better. The truth was completely different.

The fact was, almost nobody voted. That’s right. These caucuses were ballyhooed by the media for weeks. Papers printed where people were assigned to vote. For those who have access to a computer, it was even easier than voting in a normal election.

You could cast your ballot on the Internet or ask that an absentee ballot be sent to you. Otherwise, all you needed to do was show up for a few minutes on a sunny Saturday afternoon at your local caucus site.

Yet very few did. Want proof? There are 6,797,293 registered voters in Michigan, according to the secretary of state. Not all of them always show up, and not all are Democrats. But in the last presidential election, 2,170,418 voted for Al Gore.

We are regularly told by the media that Democrats in this state, as elsewhere, are “energized” and “angry” and hot to vote for anybody with the best chance of beating George W. Bush. So, you’d think that many of the 2 million Gore voters would be impatiently waiting to take part in our glorious caucuses.

Wrong. Barely 160,000 votes were cast statewide — and, nearly half of those never set foot at a caucus, but voted by mail or electrons. The contest wasn’t close, and virtually the entire state Democratic Party leadership backed Kerry.

Yet that gained him a mere 84,219 votes. University of Michigan football games draw bigger crowds. Howard Dean was second with 26,994, despite the stories about how he was bringing hordes of young people into the process.

The “second-highest turnout” nonsense refers only to the voter-unfriendly caucus system state Democrats turned to in the 1980s. Vastly more people voted every time there was a primary.

Here’s what really went on. The majority of Michiganders, and Americans, evidently don’t believe voting makes much of a difference. Turnout in this country has been declining for years, and the Florida mess four years ago has had — judging from my students — a huge impact on people’s perceptions about democracy.

Now they are less sure than ever that their votes matter. We now fear that some machines don’t count all of our votes; that machines may misinterpret our votes; faulty equipment may assign our votes to someone else, and when all else fails, that the courts, even the Supreme Court of the United States, may step in and pick a winner.

Those are all things that we need to work harder to correct, and that this nation will take a long time to live down. But that doesn’t mean we can abandon voting — far from it. Voting is the only way we have to get rid of the screwballs and evildoers.

Yet what is particularly sad is that the Michigan Democratic Party, the alleged party of the common man, doesn’t trust the voters either. That’s why it refuses to hold a presidential primary. The official reason is that we don’t have party registration in this state, and the fear is people who are not Democrats could contaminate the result.

What utter nonsense. All you had to do to vote in the caucuses is say you were taking part “as a Democrat,” and wouldn’t participate in anybody else’s nominating process. Michigan voters love to switch between parties, not to try to sabotage someone else’s process, but based on which candidates or program they like at any particular time.

Michiganders often give landslide victories to candidates as politically different as mainstream types can be, sometimes in the same election. We’ve loved Ronald Reagan and Hubert Humphrey; John Engler and Carl Levin.

Primaries draw more people and build interest in political campaigns. Four years ago, more than a million voted in the last Republican primary. Bill Clinton got the same percentage as Kerry, but three times as many votes as in the last Democratic primary.

Voters find primaries easier because they are held where everyone normally goes to vote. These caucuses were in unfamiliar locations, which you could find on the Internet. The Democratic leadership acted as if they assumed everyone who might want to vote is as handy with a Web browser as Dick Cheney with a hunting rifle.

Yet they aren’t. Surveys show that 37 percent of American adults are still not online, and they are disproportionately minority, poor and female — voters, that is, who help form the Democratic Party base. But even the Web may not have saved them in the city.

Naturally, even a pseudo-election wouldn’t be complete without an embarrassing mess in Detroit, and sure enough, a number of the listed caucus sites were wrong, or closed, or occupied by the terrorists, or something.

Incidentally, Detroit voters, the few who showed, were plainly irritated about something else; the fact that every candidate except Al “The Mouth” Sharpton ditched a scheduled debate last week and scampered off to other states.

As a result, Sharpton, who got essentially no votes elsewhere, nearly won John Conyers’ turf and was a strong second in the mayor’s mommy’s congressional district. Ominously, there was little indication of a large and enthusiastic African-American turnout. John Kerry now seems, thanks in small part to Michigan, to be virtually unstoppable; he will be, barring an act of Zeus, the Democratic nominee.

But he needs to know that unless black voters are mobilized, he won’t win Michigan, and without the mitten state, no Democrat wins the White House. If he really wants to be Bush’s terminator, Detroit needs to hear “I’ll be back.” Often.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]