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You Want To Celebrate July 4? Do It In August By Voting

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In the 240 years since our more industrious forebears asserted the right to govern their own country (We hold these truths, etc.), Americans have gradually transformed July 4 into a celebration of leisure, not self-determination. What most of us crave this holiday weekend is a respite from the rancorous din of Campaign 2016.

But democracy is neither a spectator sport nor a seasonal one: Absentee voting in the statewide primary scheduled to take place Aug. 2 has been under way for two weeks, and Tuesday is the last day Michigan residents can register to vote in that election.

For those who mean to exercise the rights our revolutionary predecessors took such trouble to secure, July is no time for a sabbatical.

That’s especially true in Michigan, where partisan manipulation of political boundaries has made most November election contests for legislative or congressional office hopelessly one-sided. In most instances, voters who wait until fall to start paying attention will forfeit any meaningful opportunity to participate in the selection of their state and local representatives.

More than 80% of the 110 state House races on November’s general election ballot, and all but a handful of the 14 congressional contests, will be decided for all practical purposes by the Aug. 2 primary.

If history is any guide, as few as 18% of the state’s registered voters will turn out for that occasion, which most voters seem to regard as a dress rehearsal for the main event in November.

But they have it exactly backward, at least insofar as local and state races are concerned. Because most of Michigan’s legislative and congressional districts have been configured to guarantee the Republican nominee a lopsided majority, most GOP primary winners are shoo-ins to prevail in November.

And the general election promises to be similarly anticlimactic in the smaller number of districts into which most of the state’s Democratic voters have been concentrated.



A foregone conclusion

Wayne County’s 11th House District, offers a particularly vivid illustration of what happens when political boundaries are drawn to benefit one party, a time-honored (and bipartisan) practice known as gerrymandering.


Because the Republican legislative majority that controlled Michigan’s reapportionment process after the 2010 census wanted to maximize their advantage in as many legislative districts as possible, those legislators endeavored to draw district boundaries that herded reliable Democratic voters into a smaller number of districts.

The House 11th was one of these. Encompassing Garden City, Inkster, and parts of Dearborn Heights, Livonia and Westland, it was configured to quarantine as many Democratic voters as possible in order to make adjacent districts (in more affluent neighborhoods to the north and west) more competitive for Republican candidates. The result is that Republican voters in the 11th have been largely reduced to spectator status, with whoever wins the Democratic primary virtually guaranteed to prevail in the November general election.

Two years ago, Rep. Julie Plawecki won an eight-way Democratic primary with less than a third of the total vote, then went on to trounce her GOP opponent by a 70%-30% margin.

This year the visibility and name recognition that come with incumbency scared off any would-be challengers in the Democratic primary, and Plawecki had a clear path to re-election in November until she died of a heart attack last week while hiking in Oregon.

Because she died after the filing deadline, the Democratic nominee who succeeds Plawecki will be chosen by Democratic Party officials, not primary voters. The party hasn’t announced its selection, but it hardly matters; the preponderance of Democratic voters virtually assures Plawecki’s as yet unidentified successor will stomp whoever wins the GOP primary.

This is gerrymandering at its worst: an electoral system so distorted it hardly matters who’s running.

Removing suspense

The Democrats’ prohibitive advantage in the 11th is an anomaly; in most districts around the state, that system has been designed to work to the GOP’s advantage, and it is the Republican candidates whose names are interchangeable.

In Oakland County, for instance, where Democrat Barack Obama easily defeated Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, the legislative boundaries established after 2010 assure that Republican candidates prevail in most races for the county Board of Commissioners, the state House and the state Senate.

More than three-fourths of the incumbents seeking re-election to one of the tri-county area's 45 seats in the state House of Representatives — 22 of 29 — face no or nominal primary opposition in districts where the opposing party is not a factor.

In Wayne County, the home-free incumbents include Democrats Rose Mary Robinson, Fred Durhall III, Stephanie Chang, LaTanya Garrett, Sherry Gay-Dagnago, Leslie Love  (all from Detroit), Erica-Marie Geiss (Taylor), Robert Kososki (Westand), and Bill LaVoy (a Monroe resident whose district encompasses part of Wayne County), as well as Livonia Republican Laura Cox.

Among the Oakland County lawmakers virtually guaranteed to win re-election are Democrats Robert Wittenberg (Oak Park), Tim Greimel (Auburn Hills), Jeremy Moss (Southfield), and Christine Greig (Northville) and Republicans Kathy Crawford (Novi), Mike McCready (Bloomfield Hills), Jim Tedder (Clarkston), Jim Runestad (White Lake)  and Michael Webber (Rochester Hills).

And Macomb County is a lock to send Democrats John Chirkun (Roseville) and Henry Yanez (Sterling Heights) and Republican Pete Lucido (Washington Twp.) back to the House.

First time's the charm

But incumbents aren’t the only House candidates getting a free pass this election cycle. Statewide, at least seven newcomers, including Ionia Republican Julia Calley, the wife of Lt. Governor Brian Calley, effectively laid claim to their district’s legislative seats simply by meeting the filing deadline.

In southeast Michigan, the novices facing little or nominal opposition in either the primary or general election include Democrats Kevin Hertel (St. Clair Shores), Jim Ellison (Royal Oak) and Bill Sowerby (Clinton Township).

That leaves just 20 of the tri-county area’s 45 House seats plausibly in play in the Aug. 2 primary:

Wayne County

Vulnerable House incumbents include the recently indicted Brian Banks (D-Detroit), who faces Detroiter Kamesha Amos in the Democratic primary; Wendell Byrd (D-Detroit), who finds himself in a seven-way primary contest; and Frank Liberati (D-Allen Park).

There are also competitive primaries for the seats being vacated by Alberta Tinsley-Talabi (D-Detroit), Harvey Santana (D-Detroit), Paul Clemente (D-Lincoln Park), and George Darany (D-Dearborn).

The Democratic primary winners are a lock to retain all seven of those seats. Only two Wayne County House districts — the ones represented by term-limited Rep. Kurt Heise (R-Plymouth) and Rep. Kristy Pagan (D-Canton) — could plausibly remain in play in the November general election.

Oakland County

The only competitive House primary is the contest for the Republican nomination for the seat currently held by term-limited Rep. Brad Jacobsen (R-Oxford). At most, only two of the county’s 14 House seats are likely to be up for grabs in November.

Macomb County

There are competitive contests in both parties’ primaries for the right to succeed term-limited Rep. Pat Somerville (R-New Boston), and in the Republican primaries for the seats held by Rep. Anthony Forlini (R-Harrison Township), Rep. Andrea LaFontaine (R-Memphis), and Rep Ken Goike (R-Ray Twp.). Three Democrats are vying for the seat vacated by Rep. Derek Miller (D-Warren).

But only three of Macomb’s 10 House seats are likely to remain in post-primary play.

The lesson is obvious: Aug. 2 will be the last chance most voters have to shape the state Legislature that will represent them in 2017.

The time to start paying attention is now.



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