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It's time for a new Michigan constitution

Dec 16, 2014

Four years ago, Michigan voters were asked if they wanted to summon a convention to write a new state constitution.

We said no, by a two-to-one margin. Nobody collected signatures to put that on the ballot, by the way. Under the current constitution, we’re automatically asked every 16 years if we want a convention to write a new one.

We’ll be asked again in 12 years.

But I now think the voters made a mistake in 2010. We may well need a new constitution, because there’s increasing evidence the old one, written in the early 1960s, no longer works.

Things are getting more dysfunctional and more anti-democratic all the time. Consider just three things: First, it’s been clear that the citizens want and need better roads. Yet with just days left in this lame-duck session, it is still far from certain our lawmakers will do anything about this. If they do, it seems likely it won’t be enough.

Second, the current constitution allows lawmakers to shamelessly ignore the will of the people. Two years ago, in a statewide vote, the citizens repealed the emergency manager law. The governor and legislature immediately enacted a new one, which they’ve used ever since.

Third, this constitution has another major flaw: It is ridiculously easy to amend, especially by special interests with a lot of money to pay for both signatures and broadcast ads to sell their changes.

Twenty-four years ago, they pushed through an amendment calling for draconian term limits, which means the Legislature now can never have any senior members with institutional memory. Instead, we’ve turned the Legislature into a pit stop for politicians on the way up or down.

Our state constitution has been amended twice as many times since 1963 than the U.S. Constitution has since 1791, and thanks to term limits and out-of-control gerrymandering, the Legislature is no longer representative at all.

A majority of Michigan voters last month chose Democratic candidates for Congress and the Michigan House of Representatives. But Republicans easily won large majorities of the seats.

It is interesting to note that conditions like this spurred voters to call the state’s last constitutional convention in 1960. Legislative districts were then wildly unequal in terms of population, which led to a different kind of imbalance with, however, similar anti-democratic effects.

Ironically, the delegates elected to that convention, known as the Con-con, didn’t change that, but the U.S. Supreme Court soon did, mandating that every district had to be of approximately equal size.

Other changes need to be made, and I don’t know that this state can wait 12 years for a chance to make them. Frankly, I’d like to see a petition drive for a referendum on holding a new convention now.

Some say there’s a risk that could make things worse – and they’re right. But voters would have to ratify any new constitution before it took effect, and we could always say no.

And if you think the current constitution is working well enough, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.