Commentary: Beyond Voting

Aug 7, 2012

Today is primary election day, and if you haven’t voted yet, I wish you would, even if there is only one race you care about.

Most of us won’t vote. Bill Ballenger, who has been closely watching politics in this state for half a century, predicts that less than one-fifth of Michigan’s registered voters are going to vote today.

Sadly, I don’t think he is wrong. That bothers me for a lot of reasons, one of which is that when I was twelve years old, three college students were tortured and murdered in Mississippi for trying to register people to vote.

There are a lot of reasons people don’t vote, and I have to think that one is the negative nature of so many campaigns today. Years ago, people often campaigned on the basis of what they were going to accomplish if elected. They had slogans like, “Let’s get America moving again.” George Romney won the governor’s office half a century ago in part by promising to modernize state government.

And though I imagine his son Mitt wouldn’t appreciate me mentioning it, his agenda included our state’s first income tax.

By the way, after that tax was enacted, Romney was twice reelected by landslides. Today, however, most campaigns seem to be based on the slogan, “The other guy is a bigger scumbag than me.”

Last week, when I was on vacation, one congressional candidate called to complain that I had said nice things on this station about one of his opponents. I pointed out that earlier in the campaign, I had said nice things about him, too. Well, yes, he admitted, but added, “My opponent isn’t a real Democrat.” He then had an aide send me a multi-screen e-mail attacking his opponent .

The candidate didn’t say one word about any plan he had to make things better. In his case, however, this negative approach doesn’t seem to be working very well. Last I looked, my caller had fallen to five percent in the polls.

I was also asked recently if I had seen any candidates who impressed me favorably. Happily, I can answer yes. One of them isn’t even on the ballot today. Bridget McCormack, a law school dean at the University of Michigan. She wants to be selected to run for an open seat on the Michigan Supreme Court .

When I had lunch with her, all she talked about was the way in which she thought the court and the judicial system could be improved and could work better for the citizens.

The other candidate who impressed me was a doctor who is running in a congressional primary today. He didn’t say a word about his opponents, and talked mainly about being a force for good in his constituents’ lives, especially when it comes to medical care.

I think we need a lot more of those types of campaigns. We’re getting to a point where more and more of us don’t think that anyone can make a difference or change a system that no longer really works, which may be why they aren’t bothering to vote.

Because if we end up with a form of government people no longer believe in, that could be the scariest scenario of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.