Michigan Republicans pass Democrats in PAC contributions

By WILLIAM THIEDE
Capital News Service

LANSING – In 2017, Republican lawmakers in Michigan raised more campaign funds from political action committees than Democrats.

Contributions from the committees commonly called PACs hit over $2.8 million for the GOP in a non-election year, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records.  Their Democratic counterparts raised nearly $1.4 million from PACs.

PACs are a tool that businesses, labor unions and other interest groups use to raise money for candidates in hopes of influencing policy.

While Republican lawmakers raised more from PACs, Democrats got a higher percentage of their total funding from PACs — nearly 61 percent of their total contributions came from those sources.  PACs accounted for about 51 percent of all the money Republicans raised.

Multiple PACs donate a significant amount of money to candidates. Many distinctly favor one party over the other.  Among the most polarized:

  • The Michigan Chamber of Commerce spent 98.5 percent of its $83,700 in contributions on Republicans.  
  • Comcast spent 84 percent of its $11,000 on GOP candidates.
  • The United Auto Workers spent all of its $62,500 in PAC funds on Democrats
  • The Michigan Education Association spent 83 percent of its $32,700 in PAC contributions on Democrats.

“There are PACs for both parties that donate a large sum of money to the people they want to see in that position,” said Lisa Canada, the political director for the Detroit Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, a union that tends to back Democrats. “This past year, politicians in office in Michigan were primarily Republican, which had a lot to do with the money being contributed.”

One reason why Republicans may rely proportionately less than Democrats on PACs is that Michigan has become more Republican over the years, said Jen Smith, a retired political consultant FROM WHERE?.

“The GOP doesn’t have to rely on PACs giving them as much money when people are going out and donating,” Smith said. “They have great influence over the people in Michigan right now.”

Republican legislators raised on average $62,061 from all sources in 2017. The average for Democratic legislators was $39,542.

“Everybody takes money from PACs, not just Republicans,” said Tony Daunt, executive director of  the Lansing-based Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative organization that says it strives to catalyze a grassroots movement in favor of “constitutional rights.”

“It’s a popular myth that only the Republicans take PAC money, and the media goes along with that myth,” Daunt said.

William Theide writes for Spartan Newsroom.

 

Not every lawmaker is a campaign rainmaker

By IAN HAWLEY
Capital News Service

LANSING — The average legislator in Michigan raised more than $50,000 to run for office in 2017, but not all focused on big contributions.

In fact, 16 lawmakers raised less than $5,000 last year, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records. Three raised less than $500 each.

Candidates have three main sources of funding: individuals, political parties and political action committees commonly known as PACs.

A PAC is a tool that businesses, labor unions and other interest groups use to raise money for candidates in hopes of influencing public policy.

Individuals can donate a maximum of $1,000 to a campaign. But PACs can donate 10 times as much, up to $10,000. They’re controversial because of the large influence they can give to the candidate who distributes the funds.

Although he’s running for a third — his final one allowed under term limits — a as a state representative, Republican Aaron Miller of Sturgis raised only $150 for his reelection campaign. He chooses not to accept PAC contributions as a reflection of his political views and lifestyle.

“After my [first] primary in 2014, I had a few independent PACs donate money,” said Miller, who chairs the House Elections and Ethics Committee. “After that I made a commitment, which I have honored to this day, not to accept PAC money from that point forward.

“It was a [decision] I thought about by myself, with my wife and with my campaign manager,” Miller said.

“I ran to be a regular guy and I asked myself, ‘How can I be different from the pack?’ The thing I thought that would best demonstrate myself and my character to the public would be to not accept PAC money,” he said.

For his first election, Miller raised money from family, friends and other small contributors. Some people make fun of the small amounts he raises, he said, but “I would say I have to be doing something right to have been here so long.”

It may put him at a financial disadvantage not to take PAC money, he said, but “I would say that I am not a prolific money raiser to begin with.”

Betsy Coffia unsuccessfully ran for a House seat in 2014 and 2016. She also took no PAC money. She didn’t even take money from her own party.

Campaigning without the money from big donors actually attracted voters to her, she said. It was an important plank of her platform.

“I initially ran because of the issues I saw with how campaigns are financed,” said Coffia, a Democrat from Traverse City. “I see big money as corroding to the political process. I ran with only individual contributions, which was tough because that meant my only means of fundraising starting out was going door-to-door spreading my message.”

But there are advantages, she said. “I found that if I told voters that I had no donations from big-money donors, that opened them up to listen to the rest of my ideas.”

Competitors outspent her 3 to 1.

“Instead of paying for costly advertising campaigns, we did meet-and-greet sessions with our constituents without asking for money,” Coffia said. “We wanted our events to be open to everyone, and people responded well to that.”

Coffia lost but outperformed the national Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016 by 3 percent in the district, she said.

“I’ve experienced the difference in lawmakers who are money-oriented as opposed to people-oriented,” Coffia said. “We all pay their salaries, so we as citizens should get the same respect from them as lobbyists.”

There are good and bad qualities about PACs, said David Waymire, a former political journalist who is now a partner in Martin Waymire, a Lansing public relations firm.

“If you have 110 members of the House and 38 Senate members all pushing their own agendas, (lawmaking) can get very messy and sometimes nothing will get done,” Waymire said. “The influence of PACs can help to push things forward. However, this does give a lot of control and power to a few individuals.

“I don’t believe PACs have been particularly good for Michigan,” Waymire said. “You know what they say about absolute power.”

And not many people are watching which groups are contributing, some experts say.

James Bebarski, a former campaign manager for Casey O’Neill, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for a Grand Rapids seat in the House in 2016, said lack of interest in state races makes it easy for candidates to take money from PACs unnoticed.

“Most people cast their votes in state elections based on which name they remember from the primary elections,” Bebarski said. “Voters either don’t pay attention to where funding comes from, or they don’t really care enough to let it affect their vote.

“If I was running for the state Legislature, I would want as much PAC money as possible,” he said, adding that he wishes campaign finance records were a bigger focus in the election process.

“If more people take the time to check into their candidates and see where the finances are coming from, they won’t be as surprised when their lawmaker passes a bill with the interest of their donors in mind,” Bebarski said. “It’s on the voters to do their due diligence if we want to see any real changes in the way finances are raised.”

Ian Hawley writes for Spartan Newsroom.

NRA influence stretches beyond direct contributions

By ANDREW BIRKLE
Capital News Service

LANSING — Despite the National Rifle Association’s reputation as a powerful lobby, the group donated to only one Michigan lawmaker in 2017, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records.

While Michigan’s state lawmakers raised nearly $8 million last year, Rep. Triston Cole, R-Mancelona, was the only one who got money from the NRA’s political action committee – a $500 donation.

Why Cole was singled out is hard to say. The NRA isn’t talking about it. Cole emailed this statement: “I am honored that because of my Second Amendment stance and hard work on legislation that I have gained the support of the NRA.”

Cole said the NRA is a grassroots organization with many members in his district, which covers Montmorency, Antrim, Charlevoix, Oscoda and Otsego counties.

So, how does the NRA maintain its reputation as a powerful influencer of state lawmakers without direct PAC donations?

The organization still spends a lot of money on elections without contributing to individual candidates, said Emily Durbin, the leader of Michigan’s Moms Demand Action chapter, an organization that works to reduce gun violence.

“Much of it consists of funding mailers in opposition to those running against their preferred candidate,” Durbin said.

Mailers fall under something called independent expenditures, a way of supporting a specific candidate without being in communication with them, said

J T Stepleton, a researcher for the National Institute on Money in State Politics based in Helena, Montana.

That makes them unlike traditional PAC donations, which go directly to lawmakers’ campaigns where they can use it however they chose, Stepleton said.  The strategy used by the NRA’s PAC allows the organization to support a candidate without appearing in campaign finance reports.

“If (PACs) are spending money on Michigan elections, the odds are it’s going to end up being in the form of independent expenditures,” Stepleton said. “That comes with a number of benefits for those involved, especially because they don’t have to deal with contribution limits.”

The NRA doesn’t spend a lot of money on state-level races, he said. “It’s not that they won’t, and they often times strategically target certain races, but they do devote most of their money to federal elections.”

The NRA’s support often come in the form of scorecards, which are mailed to voters to show where candidates stand on gun issues and usually come with a grade.

Scorecards “can be a pretty powerful force in an election,” Stepleton said.

The NRA says it remains influential because its members truly care about gun rights. Officials with the group declined direct comment and an interview request for this article. However, they said in an email:

“The power of the NRA comes from our expansive and passionate member base and our grassroots organization,” Amy Hunter, the media liaison for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, wrote. “Our members, and all Second Amendment supporters, care deeply about this issue and they vote.”

Durbin, of Michigan’s Moms Demand Action, said a key factor in the NRA’s effectiveness is its ability to fire up its base, Durbin said.

“They mobilize some of their members to loudly and persistently advocate with their lawmakers,” Durbin said. “They tend to use a lot of inflammatory language and scare tactics to convince their members that reasonable, common-sense measures on gun policies are actually covert attempts to confiscate guns or to completely roll back the Second Amendment.”

Stepleton agrees that member engagement is key for the NRA.

“One thing that just goes overlooked is their own mobilization capacity,” Stepleton said. “That is essentially how they interact with their members, which wouldn’t really show up on a campaign finance report.”

Durbin said that when constituents call, lawmakers pay attention, and the narrative that the government and political left are trying to take away guns has been very effective for the NRA.

“It is really telling people, many of whom have hobbies or interest related to firearms, that someone is trying to take that part of their hobby, their identity, their interest, part of their traditions away and people wish to defend that,” Durbin said. “Even if none of the proposals on the table are anything close to that.”

In Michigan, Stepleton said, it’s less about direct money contributions and more about the NRA telling its members whom they can trust. When the NRA’s leaders talk, its members listen and tend to vote accordingly.

Andrew Birkle writes for Spartan Newsroom.

Self-funded campaigns on the rise

By JAYLYN GALLOWAY
Capital News Service

LANSING – In 2016, President Donald Trump spent $66 million of his own funds on his campaign. He’s hardly the only politician to invest in his or her own career.

The Legislature produced seven big self-funders in 2017 – a year when state lawmakers weren’t running for office, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records.  

Self-funding is when candidates use their own money to finance some or all of their campaign costs. Some candidates don’t take money from special interest organizations that operate political action committees (PACs). Other self-funders don’t necessarily oppose support from those committees.

The top self-funders in 2017 among Michigan lawmakers were Reps. Holly Hughes of Montague ($250,000); John Bizon of Battle Creek ($190,000); Peter Lucido of Shelby Township ($50,000); Jim Runestad of White Lake ($36,000); Lana Theis of Brighton ($17,000); Jim Tedder of Clarkston ($16,000); and Robert Kosowski of Westland ($10,000).   

Lucido gave himself $50,000 to run for office and took no PAC money, according to campaign finance records.

“I self-funded to put my money where my mouth is,” he said.

Bizon, the second-highest self-funder at $190,000, called himself  “a lobbyist for the people.”

And Kosowski said self-funding doesn’t put him at a disadvantage.

“I want to invest in myself – that I’m all in,” he said.

Kosowski, Lucido and Bizon are running for Senate seats this year.   

Hughes, the top self-funder, didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview. Runestad, Theis and Tedder also didn’t respond to requests for interviews.

It’s not just lawmakers who fund their own campaigns. Gov. Rick Snyder spent $6 million on his first election.

Shri Thanedar, a gubernatorial candidate in the Democratic primary this year, is trying to duplicate that success. He gave $6 million to his campaign.

Rather than taking PAC money, Thanedar said he funded his run by selling his chemical testing company.

“I didn’t want to be beholden to corporations,” Thanedar said, “I believe the reason why our government is corrupt, and corporations get away with things, is the dependency on corporation money.”

Political experts say that betting on yourself like Trump, Snyder and Thanedar doesn’t often work.

“Personally, you don’t see many Michigan people self-fund, ” said Lew Dodak, the chief executive officer of the Dodak Johnson political consultant firm and a former House speaker. “Your chances of being elected are small.”

In fact, 88 percent of political candidates in a nationwide study who relied heavily on their own money lost their election from 2010 through 2015, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics based in Helena, Montana.

Dodak said he would urge Thanedar to run for something else to increase his name recognition because running as an unknown for governor is a long shot.

When it comes to elections, it’s more of a matter of having enough money instead of the most money, political experts say.

“I will always tell candidates you don’t have to have the most money,” said Adrian Hemond, the chief executive officer of Grassroots Midwest, a Lansing political consulting company. “You just have to have enough to win the race.”

Self-funding helps put candidates in direct contact with people who are voting, Hemond said, rather than having limited time to raise money through television commercials or knocking on voters’ doors.

When candidates invest in themselves, it shows that they’re serious about winning, and that makes other people want to invest in them, Hemond said.

Accepting PAC money from special interest groups isn’t always a solution.

Lucido said, “If you keep being elected with these special groups, it sounds to me like you’re carrying water for the special interest, not the people, Carry the water for the people –it’s refreshing.”

Jaylyn Galloway writes for Spartan Newsroom.

Campaigns raise big bucks in nonelction year

By ELI PALES
Capital News Service

LANSING – You may not know your legislators,  but chances are they’ve raised eye-popping sums of money to get your attention.  

Last year, the average Michigan lawmaker n raised more than $50,000 to run for office, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records. That’s even though there were no regularly scheduled elections in 2017.

As this year’s election approaches, legislators are gearing up to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. Several factors contribute to ballooning campaign costs.

Communication is the most expensive part of a campaign, especially in a district representing nearly 300,000 people, said Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-Meridian Township.

“One mailing to my entire district, just the voting population, is like $20,000,” said Hertel, who was first elected in 2014. “If you want to get a message out, it is very expensive.”  

Media costs contribute, in large part, to how expensive campaigns are, especially as they become more modern, said Rep. Steve Marino, R-Harrison Township. He contributes his own funds to his campaign, but also fundraises traditionally because he says it helps him better communicate with constituents.

“There’s a rising cost with TV ad buys,” Marino said. “There’s a rising cost with mail design. Social media 15 years ago wasn’t even in play — now it tends to be a very, very, very big portion of a candidate’s budget.”

Data analytics, websites and targeted advertising are reasons for the growing expense of modern campaigns, he said. It isn’t just about making social media posts: Politicians must promote and target users to get their message out.

Hertel said that while most legislators raise substantial sums of money, that money isn’t necessarily spent exclusively on their own campaigns. Those running campaigns in competitive districts often rely on the substantial sums raised by incumbents like Hertel in safer districts.

“If you looked at my campaign finance reports, for example, most of my money has gone to the (Democratic) caucus to pick up more seats,” Hertel said. “The things I care about aren’t going to happen in this current legislature. I’ve gotten six bills to the governor’s desk, but the big things I care about aren’t going to happen unless more Democrats win in 2018.”  

Marino said, “Incumbency is worth more than anything you can quantify.”

Term limits are one reason for increased spending, said Bill Ballenger, a former legislator and now a capital-area political pundit. Incumbents do a better job at deterring candidates while open seats draw more candidates and spending.

”Campaign financing has changed since Ballenger, a Republican, first ran for a House seat in 1968. Then, most candidates were ashamed to take money, he said.

“My feeling as a candidate was that I was embarrassed to spend any great amount of money to get elected,” Ballenger said. “I didn’t want it to appear that I was buying the nomination on the Republican side. I don’t think my feeling was unique. If you were a candidate, you wanted to prove your popularity with the electorate without buying your votes, putting yourself out there with your credentials.”

He was outspent by two other candidates in the primary, but he still won.

“Everything is changed today,” he said. “Now, it’s a point of pride how much money you can raise in a campaign and how much you can spend. Candidates and their campaigns actually brag about their early start in fundraising.”

Rising campaign costs can be largely attributed to court cases over the past 50 years, Ballenger said. That includes a 1978 case that found campaign spending caps unconstitutional. In the 2010 Citizens United case, the U.S. Supreme Court found independent spending by corporations and labor groups to be protected by the First Amendment, ruling that the government can’t limit it.

According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s tracking, the 110 races for the House cost a combined $15 million in 2002. In 2016, the 110 races cost $27 million.

Hertel and Marino disagree on whether increased spending has helped or hurt the electoral process. Marino said higher spending helps him communicate with constituents because it allows him to send his personal phone number to each constituent frequently. Without the mailings, he said he may not have been able to resolve constituents’ problems needed.

But Hertel said the money corrupts politics.

“There is clear evidence of undue influence of money in politics,”Hertel said. “I don’t think people should have to raise this kind of money to run for office.

Ballenger said he doesn’t think that heavy spending raises constituent awareness of legislators.

“Are those TV ads really educating the public to a far greater extent than used to be the case?” Ballenger said. “Are you really getting a sense of where Joe Blow stands and differs from his opponent compared to the way it used to be 30, 40 or 50 years ago? I would say no.”

Rather than informing voters, campaign spending all comes down to winning more seats than the other party, Ballenger said. “Money is being spent because it’s all about control and power.”

Despite the large sums raised by lawmakers, funds often are raised from a small number of elite contributors. Nationwide, 68 percent of campaign funds raised in 2016 came from donations greater than $200 and several individuals donated well in excess of $100,000 to campaigns.

Eli Pales reports for Spartan Newsroom.

Female candidates outraised men

By NATALIE DYMKOWSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — On average, female legislators in Michigan outraised their male counterparts in contributions to their own campaigns by more than $6,000 last year.

That’s despite the fact that women may face more fundraising challenges than men, said A’Shanti Gholar, the political director of Emerge America, a national group in Washington, D.C., that  encourages women to run for office.

“When a woman decides to run, she may have a harder time raising money,” Gohlar said. “And she is most likely going to have a deficit in fundraising.”

Despite the hurdles, Gholar said that she’s unsurprised that Michigan’s female lawmakers were able to outraise men if they had the right tools and met the right criteria as candidates.

Female state lawmakers on average raised around $58,000 in 2017 to finance their campaigns, according to a Spartan Newsroom analysis of campaign finance records. Male lawmakers collected roughly $52,000 on average.

The woman who raised the most money was Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, who raised $308,877. That included $250,000 of her own money.

Hughes didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Political experts say raising money is less of a problem for women than the challenge of getting more women to run.

“Research shows that women running for office are doing just as well as men,” said Jessica Kelly, the program and leadership director of Running Start, another Washington-based national organization that encourages and trains women to run for office. “They are just not running as often.”

A smaller percentage of  funding for women lawmakers comes from political action committees (PACs)  than the proportion for male lawmakers, according to the analysis.

The analysis examined the records of 37 female and 109 male lawmakers. It found that 56 percent of the money raised by men came from PACs. At the same time, about 49 percent raised by women came from PACs.

The difference may have more to do with seniority than gender, said Mark Grebner, an East Lansing political consultant.

“I think the biggest reason women don’t take as much PAC money right now is because right now there are no women who are in key leadership roles where they are controlling PAC fundraising, ” said Grebner, the founder of Practical Political Consulting.

Two female lawmakers in leadership roles are House Democratic Floor leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, who raised $55,304, and Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, president pro tempore of the Senate,who raised $50,626.

PAC contributions are to a large extent organized by people behind the scenes and not about backing candidates because they agree with them, Grebner said.

“PAC money, almost none of it, has anything to do with supporting a person just because they think he/she is doing a good job,” Grebner said. “People who control money, they are visibly moving money around and what you’re seeing is just the surface of it.”

Despite the differential in PAC contributions, women raise more total funds on average than men, according to the analysis. It may be because they have to work harder to get elected.

Rep. Kristy Pagan, D-Canton, said she faced challenges when running because voters typically see men as political candidates and not women. That made it harder to raise money.

Pagan said she had to campaign twice as hard as her male counterparts.

“I used every single moment I had wisely because I also had a full-time job,” she said. “I wanted to optimize bringing as many people as I could into the campaign using cutting-edge technology.”

Running for office presented challenges because voters didn’t see her as a “traditional” candidate, she said. She had to  make a compelling case to show them that she was serious.

Now, Pagan says she hopes to help get money out of politics and focus on more important things.

“I should be doing research on legislation or reading bills,” Pagan said. “But I also have to incorporate raising money for resources that I need just to stay in office.”  

Natalie Dymkowski writes for Spartan Newsroom.

Do term-limited lawmakers get lazy?

By ERIC FREEDMAN

LANSING — In 1992, Michigan voters approved the toughest-in-the-nation legislative term limits – two 4-year terms for senators, three 2-year terms for representatives. They did so overwhelmingly despite then-Attorney Gen. Frank Kelley’s admonition that the state already had a system of term limits called elections.

A quarter of a century later, have some of the predicted chickens come home to roost? Predictions about rewarding inexperience? Predictions about strengthening the influence of lobbyists and career legislative staff while weakening the power of elected officials? Predictions about short-termers scurrying around to find alternative elective jobs, often at the local level? Predictions about increased partisanship?

Or have term limits achieved the professed goals of encouraging citizen-legislators rather than ominous-sounding “career politicians” and reducing corruption?

Even if there have been negative effects, intended or unintended, voters are in no hurry to loosen, let alone eliminate, term limits from the state Constitution. Proposals to do that have died.

This year Michigan has 23 term-limited representatives and 25 term-limited senators.

A new national study has discovered another unintended consequence – a sense of less engagement in their jobs during legislators’ last terms.

“Legislators are less productive in their final term than in their previous terms,” wrote Alexander Fouirnaies of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and political scientist Andrew Hall of Stanford University. “We find that legislators who can no longer seek reelection sponsor fewer bills, are less productive on committees and are absent for more floor votes, on average.”

The study said, “Elections appear to be quite effective at inducing incumbents to be more productive. Rather than taking advantage of a blind electorate, incumbent legislators work harder when anticipating future elections.”

Hall said in an interview: Last-termers “become lazier because they don’t care as much.”

The study also found that last-termers don’t change the degree to which they cooperate with their own party. In other words, they don’t alter their ideological platforms to become more moderate or more extreme on their way out the door.

These conclusions come from an analysis of about 780,000 bills and 16 million roll call voting records for about 6,000 lawmakers in 14 states with partisan two-house legislatures and a limit of three or more terms. The Michigan House is included because of its three-term limit but the state Senate wasn’t because of its two-term limit.

Those are, of course, generalizations because each term-limited lawmaker is an individual

One factor is what the study calls “electoral incentives” – if you’re not running for reelection, why stay fully engaged? It also recognizes that not all term-limited legislators retire from electoral politics.

“A main purpose of elections is to influence incumbent behavior by forcing them to consider their prospects for reelection,” the study said.

With or without term limits, members of the Michigan House have often opted to run for the state Senate, while senators have had their eye on Congress.

For example, blocked from reelection this year by term limits, Reps. Bob Kosowski, D-Westland, Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, Roger Victory, R-Georgetown Township, and Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway, are running for open Senate seats. Meanwhile, term-limited Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, is running for the U.S. House.

In an interview last November, Michigan Chamber of Commerce President Rich Studley told the Detroit News, “Leadership really matters, and experience really matters. I don’t know about you, but whether I’m looking for a haircut or auto repairs, I don’t deliberately seek out people who have less than six years of experience and don’t plan on doing it very long.”

Other research has examined the practical impact of legislative term limits.

Hall says, “It’s empowering the governor, it’s empowering the staff and it’s really empowering the lobbyists.” And, he says, “You can no longer hold people accountable in their last term.”

In 2012, California voters liberalized term limits so newly elected members can serve a total of twelve years in the state Assembly, the Senate or a combination.

“It seems already to be changing the landscape,” Hall says. “The speaker can be the speaker for a longer term.”

This column originally appeared on Domamagzine.com.

New census question threatens Michigan’s federal funds, voice in Congress

By RILEY MURDOCK
Capital News Service

LANSING — If a “citizenship question” is added to the 2020 U.S. Census, an undercount of noncitizens and communities with immigrant-heavy populations might worsen the negative impacts of Michigan’s population decline, immigration experts say.

Critics of the question, announced in March by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, claim that asking if someone is a citizen means fewer people will complete the census. And that will lead to underreported local governments receiving less federal aid and other resources and could threaten the size of Michigan’s representation in Congress.

The Commerce Department said it’s adding the question to more accurately enforce the Voting Rights Act by learning more about the percentage of the population eligible to vote.

But a question about citizenship could drive some people away from the census. Undocumented immigrants or their families might fear deportation, while those with legal immigration status might worry that their status doesn’t protect them from other consequences, said Susan Reed, the managing attorney of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows nearly eight out of every 10 travelers stopped when President Donald Trump’s travel ban was in effect were legal permanent residents.

An undercount could further reduce Michigan’s congressional delegation, Reed said. And if populations are undercounted, local governments could lose portions of $675 billion in federal funds for public programs, which is divided among communities across the nation based on census data.

“That funding is there, and the question is whether or not a community will get its fair share,” said Reed, whose center has offices in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor. “Representation and resources really are the question, and really are at stake.”

Reed said the question was proposed during a period of harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump administration, which is also running the census. That context means non-citizens might not feel safe disclosing their status.

“The (citizenship) question has not been asked since the 1950s, and the reason why is because it’s been shown to depress participation by non-citizens,” Reed said.

People with legal immigration status, non-citizens and members of households that include non-citizens are reluctant to have contact with the government involving questions of their citizenship, Reed said.

Few people have a good handle on the language of citizenship, so many people don’t understand what it means to admit they’re non-citizens, Reed said.

People who would classify themselves as  “non-citizens” can be undocumented immigrants, those with a student or other temporary visa or legal permanent residents — someone with a  green card who isn’t yet a citizen, said Victoria Crouse, a senior policy fellow at the Michigan League for Public Policy, a nonpartisan policy institute that focuses on social issues.

Immigrants made up 6.3 percent of Michigan’s population in 2015, compared to 5.3 percent in 2000, according to the league. Michigan had an immigrant population of 622,875 in 2015.

“That’s something to keep in mind,” Crouse said. “We’re talking about this group of non-citizens, but it’s people with all sorts of different immigration statuses.”

The state’s population growth has slowed since 1970, shrinking by roughly 55,000 between 2000 and 2010, according to census data.

The reluctance of immigrants to answer the proposed citizenship question can be magnified by a lack of a visible benefits to people responding to the survey, Reed said.

Families might disclose their citizenship to receive benefits they’re entitled to based on immigration status, but in the context of the census, it might be difficult for them to see benefits that would offset potentially negative consequences, Reed said.

“The benefits for the community of a complete count are tremendous,” Reed said. “But the benefit of an individual filling out the census form is almost impossible to detect.”

If Michigan population trends continue, the Census Bureau predicts the state will lose a congressional representative following the 2020 census, dropping from 14 to 13 seats, according to Carolina Population Center, a population research group at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

Michigan has lost five House seats since the 1970 census, when it had 19.

Too much information? Not enough trust?

By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — It sounds counterintuitive that most Americans claim that the “plethora of information” around us makes it increasingly difficult to be well-informed citizens.

After all, there’s a 24/7 flow of information from mainstream and legacy media – think CBS News, the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and National Public Radio – to cable news giants Fox and CNN to reputable easy-to-access international media – BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. among them – to magazines, e-zines, blogs, alternative weekly papers, websites and Internet platforms such as Facebook, Yahoo and Google.

But by a 58 percent to 38 percent margin, that’s what our citizenry claims. In other words, most assert that having more information isn’t conducive to being informed.

Whether that makes sense or not, that’s what the new “American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy” Gallup/Knight Foundation survey found.

On the positive side, 83 percent said they felt “very knowledgeable” or “somewhat knowledgeable” about important issues facing the United States – although that figure is two points lower for Midwesterners. The national figure was 72 percent for issues facing their local communities.

We political and policy groupies may have more simpatico confederates across the country than we thought.

Thirty-one percent of those surveyed “very closely” follow news about events in Washington and political leaders. One-quarter “very closely” follows issues affecting their own communities. The comparable figures drop to 20 percent for international news, 18 percent for sports news, 16 percent for state government news and only 11 percent for business and financial news.

Not all information is created equal: equal in accuracy, equal in context, equal in credibility and equal in fairness and balance.

Half of those surveyed – down from 68 percent a generation ago – expressed confidence that they’ve got enough sources of information to separate facts from bias in news reports. Two-thirds asserted that most news media “do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion.”

How easily can the public detect the difference between information and misinformation? As for their own ability to make that type of separation, only about a quarter felt “very confident” that they themselves can identify when sources present factual news rather than opinion or commentary.

Trust the press to be impartial? Not for many.

The survey found 43 percent hold a negative view of the media, and only one-third hold a positive view. Here in the Midwest, the average score on media trust was lower than on the West and East coasts.

“Those holding favorable views are much more likely than those with unfavorable views to believe more information makes staying informed easier,” the report found.

Only 44 percent could name a news source they believe reports objectively. Among those who could do so, Republicans overwhelmingly named Fox News, while Democrats, young adults, Blacks and Hispanics were more likely to name CNN first.

TV news programs remain the most popular news sources, followed by Internet news websites.

But popularity isn’t synonymous with trust. Respondents place the greatest trust in national TV network news and in national and local newspapers.

As for “fake news,” – like beauty – it’s in the eye and mind of the beholder.

The survey used this straightforward definition: “Inaccurate information presented as an objective news story and designed to deceive people in some way.”

It then asked whether the following four situations fit that definition: knowingly portraying false information as true; journalists reporting stories before verifying all the facts and sources for accuracy; slanting stories to promote a particular viewpoint; and accurate stories that negatively depict political groups and politicians.

Here, too, the results showed partisan differences.

For example, 42 percent of Republicans but only 17 percent of Democrats said accurate stories portraying political leaders and groups in a negative light are always “fake news.” They were closer to consensus on whether knowingly presenting false information as true always constitutes “fake news”: 43 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of independents and 52 percent of Republicans.

Overall, 56 percent considered fake news to be a “very serious” threat to democracy, including two-thirds of Republicans and half of Democrats.

There are many variables in assessing the attitudes of 19,000-plus respondents. They include political leaning, education level, household income, age, race and whether someone lives in a large city, rural area or suburb. Each of those women and men has a unique combination of those and other relevant variables.

Thus statistics such as these can tell only part of the story about Americans, trust, the press and democracy – but they can teach us lessons about the critical need for journalists and news organizations “to fulfill their democratic responsibilities of informing the public and holding government leaders accountable,” as the Gallup/Knight Foundation report puts it.

And while the citizenry believe the news media still have an essential role in our democratic society, the press must strive to convince them that it’s fulfilling that responsibility.

Eric Freedman is director of Capital News Servcie. This column originally appeared in Domemagazine.com.

Proposed constitutional amendment would streamline voter registration

By GLORIA NZEKA
Capital News Service

LANSING – Voter advocacy and civil rights groups are petitioning for a state constitutional amendment that would make it easier for Michigan residents to vote.

The campaign, called “Promote the Vote,” seeks to give military members more time to vote, automatically register citizens when they conduct business at a Secretary of State office and allow absentee voting without the need to give a reason. It also would allow same-day voting registration with proof of residency and straight party voting.

Under current state law, you need to be registered at least 30 days before an election  to vote. Military operating from an overseas installation are advised to send back their absentee ballot 35 days before election day, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

“We just want voting to be accessible, convenient and everyone’s vote to be counted and secure,” said Judy Karandjeff, the president of the League of Women Voters.

The proposal which is targeted for next November’s election, is backed by the league, the American Civil Liberties Union and the state and Detroit branches of the NAACP.  

The Secretary of State’s office is confident in the state’s current voting process, said Fred Woodhams, the elections agency’s director of communication.

“We believe that Michigan elections system does an excellent job of allowing voters to cast a ballot and have their voice heard.”

“Michigan saw the most registered voters ever in 2016,” he said. “Recent elections have seen near-record turnout.”

The Board of State Canvassers has approved the petition language, “and people will be able to sign the petition shortly,” Karandjeff said.

Backers of the proposal must get 315,654 valid signatures of registered voters to make the November ballot.

Only 15 states and the District of Columbia allow same-day registration, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. The organization says there is strong evidence that election day registration increases voter turnout.

Promote the Vote isn’t the only campaign seeking to reform Michigan’s elections laws. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, a group of activists introduced a constitutional amendment proposal called Voters Not Politicians.

It would establish an independent commission to oversee the drawing of Michigan’s electoral districts. Elected officials would be ineligible to serve on the commission.

In December the group turned in more than 425,000 valid signatures to the Secretary of State, where the petition is under review. The redistricting process, which takes place every 10 years, was controlled by Republicans in 2011 and the party has since maintained legislative majorities in elections.