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Michigan's 13th District race proves primaries need to change

Feb 7, 2018

Just in case you were wondering, I’m not running for the vacant seat in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District. I’m not trying to start rumors. I’m not running for anything, and can’t imagine I ever would. I’m a journalist, not a politician.

Michigan's 13th congressional district

I also don’t live in the district, though that’s not a disqualification. Gary Peters was elected to Congress 10 years ago from a district he actually didn’t live in. But I brought up the 13th district race because it is starting to get easier to say who isn’t running than who is.

Yesterday, former state representative Rashida Tlaib jumped in the race. Tlaib is a fiery and passionate young attorney and was a popular state representative before term limits forced her out of Lansing.

Yet the odds ought to be against her here. She is a Muslim of Arab-American descent, in a district where most of the residents and voters are African-American and Christian.

But this may be the world’s most crowded congressional primary. It's for the seat held by John Conyers from the time he was first elected in 1964 till he resigned in disgrace in December. So there are a lot of people who’ve been waiting their chance.

They include, so far, State Senator Ian Conyers, the former congressman’s nephew, and also John Conyers III, his son. State Senator Coleman Young II, who badly lost the race for mayor of Detroit last fall, is running. So is Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and State Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo. Others may get in as well.

Given all those candidates, each of whom has some natural constituency of their own, it isn’t hard to imagine somebody winning with 20 percent of the vote in an August primary where turnout is always abysmally low. Turnout will be higher in November, but that won’t matter.

No Republican can ever carry this district, which consists of a chunk of southern Detroit and a bunch of blue-collar Wayne County suburbs like Garden City and Westland.

The odds are that whoever does win will have been the first choice of only a small handful of voters. Which makes me think that unless we get rid of our outrageous system of gerrymandering, we need to adopt a system like they have in California — something usually known by the perhaps unfortunate name “jungle primary.”

That would mean the top two vote-getters in August would compete against each other in the November main event, regardless of party. In West Michigan districts, that might well mean two Republicans facing each other in the fall; here, it would be two Democrats.

That would provide most voters with more opportunity for a choice that really mattered to them. It’s working well in California, by the way. The nation’s largest state has now become overwhelmingly Democratic, and when Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate two years ago, her November opponent was another Democrat.

It would take a state constitutional amendment to make that happen in Michigan, and that won’t happen anytime soon. But this summer, we are likely to see someone win what may well be a lifetime seat in Congress with a mere handful of votes.

All we can do is hope that as many people cast ballots in August as possible.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. 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.