Information in the hands of voters leads to accountability, oversight of legislator actions
If people had been asked in 2001 whether Michigan needed another 4,958 state laws, most likely would have said "no."
Yet, that's what the state got and the only place to read about them in plain English was at MichiganVotes.org, which has explained every bill that became law, as well as every other bill introduced in the Legislature.
In the next few days, MichiganVotes.org will describe the 25,000th new bill introduced by legislators in the Michigan House and Senate since the website was launched.
As of the end of 2012, the site also provided concise, objective, plain-English descriptions of:
- 20,800 roll call votes by state legislators
- 17,240 amendments
- 64,106 votes missed by legislators (the incidence of which has drastically declined)
The introduction of nearly 5,000 new laws perhaps underscores why this unique website is so essential to sustaining a healthy democracy.
Michigan Capitol Confidential sat down with MichiganVotes editor Jack McHugh this week to discuss the significance of MichiganVotes.org.
CapCon: What makes MichiganVotes different from other voting record sites and guides?
McHugh: I think it’s mainly two things: It provides plain-English descriptions of bills and votes, and does this for all the bills and votes, not just the ones some politician, newspaper editor or special interest group wants you to know about.
Without those plain-English descriptions, the average citizen who's not a policy wonk has no chance of deciphering what many bills actually do, which can be very different from what their sponsors or press reports say the bill does. If you don't know what a bill actually does, knowing whether a particular legislator voted "yes" or "no" is meaningless.
CapCon: Why does describing all the bills matter? Most of them never pass.
McHugh: They don't pass, and many if not most are dead on arrival the day they are introduced. But every one of those DOA bills was introduced for a reason — often to let a legislator posture for a certain special interest or segment of his political base. So the bills tell a lot about who that person really is.
For example, you may have a Republican representing a conservative district who boasts about never voting for a tax increase, a gun restriction or a pro-abortion bill. On that basis he claims to be "Mr. Conservative."
But when you look at all his bills and votes, you notice a whole bunch of corporate welfare measures, and maybe he always votes "yes" on budgets that increase spending, and "no" on measures that rein in the perks and privileges of politically powerful special interests, including government unions and their members. The same applies in reverse to Democratic lawmakers who represent very liberal districts. Especially on the corporate welfare — that's a bipartisan bad habit.
MichiganVotes makes it possible for regular people to look beneath the surface and find an answer to this seemingly simple, but in reality, devilishly complex question: "What's the representative's voting record?’
CapCon: With all those thousands of bills, how can a user uncover any lawmaker’s record?
McHugh: Because all those bills and votes are searchable and sortable by legislator, category, keyword and more. Granted it can still take some work, but it's work measured in minutes rather than days or weeks.
For example, if you go the "Advanced Searches" page, and look up a legislator under the "Search Senate voting record" or "Search House voting record" sections, you can click the "search" button without adding a date range, category or keyword. Up pops a plain-English description of every bill that person has ever introduced. That tells you an awful lot right there. Below those are his or her floor amendments if any, and below that is every roll call vote that person has taken.
There may be hundreds or thousands of those roll call votes, which means just a list of them all isn't helpful. So go back and select a "category" or enter a "keyword" or do both. For example, enter "taxes" for the category and "increase" for the keyword. The results are like a Google search, it will contain some false positives but among the results will be that person's votes on tax increases. And the list is short enough that you can pick them out.
The same can be done with the category, "education," and keyword, "charter." You'll discover if the legislator favors school choice, or shares the position of the Michigan Education Association teachers' union. Other revealing search results are limited only by a user's imagination. Noodling around on the site for a while can turn a regular grass-roots activist into a dangerously well-informed advocate.
CapCon: What impact has all this information had?
McHugh: I'm glad you used the word information instead of data. Data includes the fact that a particular legislator voted "yes" on 2012 House Bill 5463, whose official tagline is "Economic development; downtown development authorities; bylaws of authorities and taxable status; modify." Information, however, is knowing this vote was to authorize using the Detroit Downtown Development Authority as the vehicle to deliver taxpayer subsidies for a new sports stadium complex owned by Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch. The information description is how MichiganVotes explained the bill, which is now Public Act 396 of 2012.
In 2001, we envisioned the site giving citizen activists information to help them have more influence in the legislative process. Over time we realized that what it really provides is accountability, which is potentially much more powerful. Influence is what lobbyists buy and sell; it means being able to persuade a legislator to vote "yes" or "no" on a particular bill that's coming up.
In contrast, real accountability means every legislator knows that every time he or she pushes the green or red vote button, that particular vote may come back to haunt them because real people in their district can easily discover it.
So back to that GOP senator who boasts to conservative voters that he's "good" on taxes, guns and abortions. Most of the time (but not always) those things are practically party line votes when they come up, so his record there doesn't necessarily tell folks back in the district much about him.
What makes him nervous, though, is the thought that voters — especially GOP primary voters — may search his record in the "economic development" category, or use the keyword "subsidy," and discover what a corporate welfare kingpin their "conservative" senator really is.
Maybe the knowledge they glean might cause him to start voting differently on some of those bills. That's accountability.
MichiganVotes is a locked-and-loaded accountability weapon — it's just lying there, ready to convert any citizen who picks it up into a powerful force for reclaiming our democratic system from the political class that's hijacked it.