Commentary: When the law is an ass

Jul 12, 2012

If you need proof that our system is sometimes irrational, consider this: Westland, a mostly blue-collar Wayne County community of about 80,000 people, is short of cash, like most cities these days. But Westland is apparently going to have to spend $60,000 to hold an unexpected and virtually meaningless primary election on a Wednesday in September.

This is the first step in replacing Thaddeus McCotter, the congressman whose bizarre meltdown ended with his sudden resignation last week. Not to replace him for a full-term, but for just the few weeks remaining in his current one.

Earlier this week, when I talked about this, I did not expect the governor to call a special election. I knew the soonest they could get this done would be on National Election Day in November. That’s less than two months before the term expires. And, the boundaries of the district will change in January, thanks to redistricting.

For example, Westland, like a number of other places, is no longer in the 11th district. So the voters there are going to spend a lot of money to choose someone who will represent them for two months. Worse, most of that time Congress won’t even meet.

If a short “lame-duck” session is called, it is unlikely to accomplish much. Nor are many people likely to vote in the bizarre September primary. Westland isn’t alone in its misery. Up in Oakland County, Waterford will have to spend $10,000 on this because ten of its precincts are in the old, not the new, eleventh.

Overall, the primary will cost the state and these communities about $650,000. By the way, the September primary could be avoided if Republicans and Demcrats agreed that each party would field only one candidate.

But as of today, two Republicans, Kerry Bentovolio and Nancy Cassis, say they are in. So bring on the invoices.

This election is happening because the governor’s office determined reluctantly that they had to do this. Under our Federal Constitution, if a U.S. Senator resigns from office, the governor gets to appoint a replacement. Not so with House members, however. Ten years ago, an Ohio representative was expelled from Congress later in July, and the governor declined to hold an expensive election to replace him. The federal courts swiftly ruled that Ohio’s governor had violated the law. So Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, in charge while the governor is on vacation, decided Michigan had no choice.

That’s sensible, but the requirement is crazy, true, if the same person wins the special election and the general, they will have a slight advantage in seniority, though hardly enough to matter.

What’s needed is a Federal Constitutional amendment to fix this quirk, but that would take years. For now, Michigan’s political parties should put more pressure on their folks not to have a contested primary. And frankly, I wish the governor had considered a little constructive civil disobedience.

His main authority could be the Dickens character Mr. Bumble, who when confronted with something similarly absurd famously said, “the law is an ass.”

Flamboyantly calling attention to this problem may be the only hope we have of ever getting it fixed.  

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.