Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 5, 2012

Voters ignore primaries

By Jack Lessenberry
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---- — Ten years ago, about a week after that year's August primary, I was having lunch with former Gov. Jim Blanchard when a man came by, beaming happily.

"Governor! I'm going to vote for you!" Blanchard gave a wan smile. Days earlier, he had attempted to make a comeback and win the Democratic nomination for a third term in the statehouse.

But he had been badly defeated by then-Attorney General Jennifer Granholm. I looked on as his tardy supporter walked away. Blanchard shrugged. "That's been happening since the primary. People don't know when elections are."

Whether they do or not, even registered voters mostly ignore Michigan's August primary. Two years ago, for example, turnout was 22.9 percent. That means more than three out of every four voters don't show up. Sometimes, it's four out of five. There are exceptions; in tiny Charlevoix, a resort community on Lake Michigan, the locals seem genuinely more excited about a hot primary contest for county prosecutor than they are about the presidential race.

But statewide, the turnout could be even lower than 2010's this year: Two years ago, the governorship was open, and both parties had highly contested primaries, especially the Republicans, who had four major figures fighting over the nomination.

This year, there's a GOP senate primary, but the candidates haven't generated as much interest. Too many voters seem to also be under a badly mistaken illusion that the primary isn't very meaningful.

For example: When I left that lunch with Blanchard, a woman walked up to us in the parking lot, and said "I'm going to vote for you! I always do." He muttered thanks, and left.

I followed her. "Excuse me, but do you realize the election was last week?" I said. She looked confused. "I thought they were always in November," she said. I told her I meant the primary.

"Oh! I skip those," she told me. "I just vote in the real election." Leaving aside what that says about civic responsibility, the fact is that contrary to what many people think, in most races and most places, the primary is the real election. Most legislative and congressional races are one-party affairs, thanks to increasing efforts by state legislatures to gerrymander swing districts out of existence.

As of now, it looks like there could be only one doubtful Michigan race for Congress in November: The rematch between freshman U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek and his challenger two years ago, former state legislator Gary McDowell.

But there are three congressional seats with intense, vitally important primary battles this year. Two of them are in the neighboring 13th and 14th districts. In the first, longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. John Conyers is fighting a battle he could lose against three prominent state legislators from Detroit and its suburbs.

Next door, two incumbent congressmen, Hansen Clarke and Gary Peters, are fighting each other to survive. Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence is also running, as are two other candidates.

Tight and dramatic races. But there will be no drama here in November. Both districts are so heavily Democratic that the GOP is unlikely to do more than offer token opposition in the fall.

The 11th District has dramatic contests in both parties, thanks to the bizarre failure of incumbent Thaddeus McCotter to submit enough signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.

This should be a safe Republican district, but the only Republican to qualify for the ballot is Kerry Bentivolio, a part-time reindeer farmer and extreme Tea Party member who wants to remove all U.S. troops for our bases overseas.

Worried Republican operatives are trying to drum up a primary write-in campaign for Nancy Cassis, a 68-year-old former state senator, but in a tiny turnout, the odds seem to be against her.

That may give Democrats a shot — depending on how their primary goes. There are two candidates on the ballot: William Roberts is a good-looking youngish man with an easy-to-remember name. However, he is also a follower of bizarre conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche and wants to impeach President Obama.

Mainstream Democrats are solidly behind Dr. Syed Taj, the well-respected chief of medicine at Dearborn's Oakwood Hospital, and a Canton Township trustee. His positions are essentially those of the president, and he is extremely popular in his home area.

But he is also a Muslim, a native of India, and speaks in the musical accents of his homeland. Democrats worry most that his unfamiliar name may cause voters to make a primary mistake.

That race may or may not be competitive in November, depending on who wins each party's primary. Beyond Congress, however, most of the 22 open seats in the state house of representatives will also be effectively decided next week.

The fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts will also be determined then by voters in Metropolitan Detroit, who are being asked to tax themselves in order to save the world-class art museum.

How many of these races will turn out is, the weekend before the voting, anything but certain. Two things are clear, however: First, this will be an especially important election, statewide.

And second, it will be sadly ignored by the vast majority of Michigan voters, who, if they end up unhappy with the result, ought to realize they have only themselves to blame.

Jack Lessenberry teaches journalism at Wayne State University.