June’s Brexit vote was a stark example of the need for a process of educating voters as part of the initiative process. In Great Britain, sufficient numbers of electors signed a petition to place the question of leaving the European Union on the ballot. A majority of those voting on the question opted to leave the European Union. The immediate effect was turmoil in the worldwide economy and changes in the leadership of Great Britain. History will judge the long-term consequences of this vote.
The evidence that voters did not fully understand the ramifications of the proposal or their votes is striking. Google reported that the second most searched term in the days immediately following the vote was “What is the EU?” Additionally, millions of people signed a new petition seeking a revote on Brexit.
The lessons learned from this exercise in democracy extend far beyond the British Isles. Michigan is one of 15 states that authorize electors to use the initiative for constitutional amendments and statutes and to call for referendums on enacted laws. On a routine basis over the last several decades, Michigan voters have been asked to weigh in on public policy questions, often on complex questions that affect public finance, social issues, criminal justice, and many other aspects of living and working in the state.
Michigan voters have an asset evidently not paralleled in Great Britain and generally not found in many of the other states with the initiative and referendum – the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. Since the 1920s, the Citizens Research Council has assumed the responsibility for providing independent, nonpartisan analyses of questions on the statewide ballot. Since the adoption of the current 1963 Michigan Constitution, the Citizens Research Council has analyzed all 117 statewide ballot questions that have faced the electorate. Always, the Research Council’s primary goal in these efforts has been to provide the voting public with the information they need to make an informed vote.
Yesterday, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan was recognized for the citizen education achieved through its work on ballot analysis. The Governmental Research Association (GRA), the national organization of individuals engaged in governmental research, gave the award for Most Effective Education, State Government Issues to the Citizens Research Council for the work related to Statewide Ballot Issue: Proposal 15-1, Sales and Motor Fuel Tax Increases Related to Transportation Funding.
On May 5, 2015, Michigan voters went to the polls to vote on Proposal 15-1, the proposed constitutional amendment that would alter the sales tax provisions. While the vote was specific to the sales tax changes in the plan, the Legislature effectively tied the other elements of the enacted legislation to the success of the ballot measure. Thus, the vote was in reality an “all or nothing” vote on the transportation funding plan as a whole.
In the end, Michigan voters were asked to cast votes on an incredibly complex package of legislation that fundamentally altered Michigan’s tax and revenue structure. Beyond the tax changes noted above, the underlying package of bills also altered annual vehicle registration taxes, applied motor fuel taxes to new alternative fuels, and even expanded the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit. In an editorial the day after the May 5 vote, the Detroit Free Press called the measure “likely one of the most complicated and confusing questions ever placed on a Michigan ballot.”
Proposal 15-1 represented perhaps the largest challenge to the Research Council’s tradition of providing independent, nonpartisan analysis of ballot questions, and the Research Council efforts included a comprehensive education effort on the proposal that involved both media relations as well as direct interaction with the voting public.
The Citizens Research Council released its comprehensive analysis of the ballot measure on March 19, 2015 and then hosted a live webinar reviewing our analysis of the proposal on March 25, 2015. The webinar was archived and remained available to interested citizens seeking information on the proposal. Even before the release of the full report, the Research Council began engaging with statewide media to help explain elements of the ballot proposal. During March, April, and early May, the Citizens Research Council was cited in dozens of print and electronic media stories on the proposal. We also sat down for extended interview segments on the implications of the ballot measure with a number of television and radio outlets, including WKBD-TV (Detroit), WKAR-FM (East Lansing), WJR-AM (Detroit), NBC-25 (Flint), WMUK-FM (Kalamazoo), and WILS-AM (Lansing). The Detroit Free Press featured Research Council President Eric Lupher in an online question-and-answer chat on the proposal in late April, just one week before the vote.
Beyond the media coverage, however, the Citizens Research Council’s insights on the issues resulted in invitations to participate in various forums on the ballot measure sponsored by citizen and civic groups, labor organizations, as well as business and governmental associations. From March to May, the Research Council staff presented its non-partisan research on the ballot measure at 27 different venues around the state ranging from Cadillac and Traverse City in Northern Michigan; Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo on the state’s west side; numerous forums in the Metro Detroit area; as well as in major cities including Lansing and Flint.
On Election Day, Michigan voters resoundingly defeated Proposal 15-1 by lopsided 4-to-1 margin – the most lopsided defeat of a ballot measure since the adoption of Michigan’s current constitution in 1963. Notably, information disseminated by the Research Council was cited by both supporters and opponents of the measure in justifying their opinions on the issue. Thus, we believe, despite the complexity of the proposal, we upheld our high standards of providing objective information and a balanced appraisal of the proposal. While our analysis and outreach efforts contributed a great deal to the public dialogue, we believe the Research Council’s analysis played a unique role in adding value to the debate in a number of specific areas.
The staff and board of directors for the Citizens Research Council of Michigan take the role of providing independent, nonpartisan analysis of ballot questions very serious. No other organization in Michigan has the sterling reputation as a provider of fact-based analysis and the expertise in state and local government policy to conduct these analyses and be trusted as a go-to source of analysis by the media, civic groups, and the voting public.