Six Ways to Fix Michigan Politics

MLive asked a dozen researchers, elected officials and retired politicos how, in an ideal world, they would change today’s toxic atmosphere.
March 3, 2022

There is one thing Americans apparently agree on: our government is in crisis.

Hostility and distrust between people who disagree politically is getting worse. The forces driving this polarization discourage elected leaders from working together and erode trust in democratic institutions.

Recent polls found a majority of Americans believe the country is at risk of failing. One year after a violent attempt to overturn a presidential election, historians are drawing comparisons to conditions that preceded the Civil War.

MLive asked a dozen researchers, elected officials and retired politicos how, in an ideal world, they would change today’s toxic atmosphere. Their suggestions include good government reforms and personal actions people can take to encourage bipartisanship and civility.

Here are six themes that emerged:

1. Expand Michigan’s strict term limits

Michigan has the strictest term limits in the nation. It might be time to rethink that, experts say -- and a move is afoot to loosen them a bit through a new ballot proposal.

Voters set a two-term limit for state senators and a three-term limit for state representatives through a 1992 ballot initiative. The restrictions were aimed at preventing lawmakers from becoming career politicians, but political insiders say it created a host of negative consequences.

Wayne State University political scientist Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson researched the impact of term limits in the last 30 years. She found that shorter terms did not fulfill the promises made by proponents. Instead, the legislature became less experienced and less effective.

Sarbaugh-Thompson said term limits have also made lawmakers view their seat in the Legislature as a stepping stone to other offices or higher-paying jobs. This gives lawmakers more incentive to focus on their political ambitions, she said.

Gilda Jacobs, a former Democratic senator who served as the CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy until the end of 2021, identified term limits as the biggest hurdle to cultivating bipartisanship.

She argues they prevent lawmakers from building relationships and wipe away valuable political experience each election. Politicians often don’t leave politics after hitting their term limit anyway; many go on to become lobbyists or consultants that influence rookie lawmakers.

“When you have people who are just here for a little while, they become way more susceptible to getting money from special interests,” Jacobs said. “Lobbyists have a whole lot more power in our state. Even longtime staffers who used to have institutional knowledge retire, they move on to other jobs. You have fewer people that actually know how things run or remember the issues.”

Dennis Muchmore, former chief of staff for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and current government relations adviser for Honigman LLP, said term limits “screwed up everything.” He said extending term limits, or getting rid of them entirely, is the first thing he would do to repair relationships between lawmakers.

But Muchmore and other proponents of loosening the restrictions agree that it’s a tough sell. Term limits were added to the Michigan Constitution by a majority of voters and the idea remains popular.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen. Over the years there have just been a million polls and every time you ask the people (whether) they want to get rid of term limits they say no,” Jacobs said.

Sarbaugh-Thompson said a ballot proposal to eliminate term limits is unlikely to succeed, but other states like Arkansas and California modified their rules through citizen-led initiatives. She suggested taking their lead to create an overall limit on the number of years a lawmaker can serve in the House or Senate instead of limits for each chamber.

2. Get rid of gerrymandering and hyper-partisan primaries

Michigan’s independent redistricting commission approved new maps in December that will be used for the next decade of elections, barring any court intervention.

Voters changed the Michigan Constitution in 2018 to create the commission and give it the responsibility to redraw political boundaries. Maps were previously approved by the Legislature, which resulted in a partisan process that gave recent advantages to Republicans, according to a panel of federal judges.

Whether the new process creates more competitive races is yet to be seen. A handful of Democratic lawmakers sued the redistricting commission in January, alleging the new maps disenfranchise Black voters.

Gov. Rick Snyder, who approved the last set of maps in 2011, acknowledged in an interview that in the past many seats were all but guaranteed to be claimed by one political party. This puts more importance on primary elections where voters select a nominee to represent their party, since the winner is assured to win the general election.

Primary voters are generally more partisan than people who cast a ballot in the general election. Snyder said gerrymandered districts cause candidates to cater to the more extreme voters to win primary races and stave off challengers who claim to be a more pure representative of their party.

When a low-turnout primary determines the whole race, a minority of voters decide who represents their community. Sarbaugh-Thompson said creating more competitive political districts could encourage candidates to appeal to moderates instead of a small group of partisan voters.

“I’m hopeful that the redistricting process will minimize what I see as the effect of gerrymandering on increasing polarization,” Sarbaugh-Thompson said. “When you have very safe districts where the primary is the election -- the general election is a coronation -- you get a lot of people who run at the fringes.”

3. Introduce ranked-choice voting

Allowing voters to rank candidates in order of their preference is gaining traction as a way to reflect the will of the majority in crowded primary races. The system allows voters who picked a losing candidate to still have a say, preventing candidates from winning with a small number of votes.

Proponents of ranked-choice voting say it promotes more diverse candidates and prevents candidates from feeling pressure to stay out of a race for fear of splitting the vote with a candidate with similar views.

House Democrats introduced legislation last year to allow ranked-choice voting in municipal elections. If one candidate does not win more than 50% of the votes during the first vote tally, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those votes are reallocated based on voters’ second-ranked preference. The process repeats until one candidate has a clear majority.

Residents in Ann Arbor approved a proposal in 2021 that would change elections in the city to a ranked-choice voting system.

4. Restore confidence in elections

Anxiety about the future of American democracy is increasing as a growing number of people worry about partisan interference in elections. Restoring confidence in the electoral process is key to making sure people feel that their voices are heard.

Michigan’s Democratic senators pushed back on efforts by state legislatures around the country to tighten voting laws in the aftermath of the 2020 election. U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said declining trust in elections is destabilizing the country.

“If people think it’s not fair on one side, that’s bad, but if it gets to the point when you pass a bunch of laws that make it very difficult for people to vote, then the other side doesn’t think it’s fair,” Peters said. “When you have both sides that don’t think an election is free and fair, and that people’s voices aren’t actually heard and their votes aren’t actually counted, this democratic experiment of ours that started with the Founding Fathers is in serious jeopardy.”

5. Get off social media, live in the real world

It’s become a popular online insult, but sometimes getting offline to “touch grass” is actually a good idea.

Tech companies have played an influential role in shaping political conversations, creating online echo chambers and amplifying misinformation. Social media platforms themselves are becoming more polarized as alternatives to Twitter and Facebook promote themselves as safe spaces for conservatives.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, encourages constituents to get involved in their community instead of spending all their time absorbing political news through a screen. Participating in local clubs or volunteer organizations creates more positive change than stewing over the latest controversy.

“I tell people to go do some community service on something that has nothing to do with politics,” Slotkin said. “You want to rescue dogs? Go rescue dogs. You want to work on feeding the homeless? Go feed the homeless, but go meet new people and see them as human beings in a way that has nothing to do with politics. The trust deficit is so intense right now that you can’t meet someone new and start talking about politics, right? That’s not a happy place right now. You need to see strangers as human beings first and foremost if you want to bring back stability.”

U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids, worries social media is preventing people from developing relationships in the physical world. He also described a dysfunctional news environment where people can select sources that hew to their partisan beliefs. Meijer said partisan news groups cater to viewers’ emotions rather than facts.

“If you watch cable news all the time, you end up getting sucked into a world that is not geared toward making sure you’re well informed but geared toward riling up an emotional response in one direction or another,” Meijer said. “If your goal is to get information, subscribe to your local newspaper, subscribe to good national newspapers or news magazines, you know, balance those opinions. If you reflexively react against an issue or an individual, think ‘why?’”

6. Don’t vote for jerks – hold elected officials accountable

The last suggestion may well be the simplest: Elect better people.

Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said voters themselves are partially to blame for polarization. Every citizen has a part to play in choosing elected officials; there’s a lot of jerks in the office because we’ve put them there.

“Voters, when polled, generally say they want Congress to work together, but most people don’t reflect that then they go to vote,” Grumet said.

Voters should reward officials who can demonstrate a willingness to work across the aisle or show the courage to break with their party’s leadership when needed. Several organizations are dedicated to tracking bipartisanship and the productivity of members of Congress, including The Lugar Center, Center for Effective Lawmaking and GovTrack.

Zachary Neal, a Michigan State University researcher who studies polarization and psychology, said it’s tough to get voters excited about sober leadership while more extreme candidates dominate news coverage.

“Whether it’s politics or diets, it’s difficult to get excited about moderation,” Neal said. “I think the real challenge in undoing this polarization is to make bipartisanship cool again.”