Jack McHugh

Ten years ago this September, MichiganVotes.org was launched, and a new sun rose over the Michigan Legislature, shedding light on the actions of legislators. For the first time, citizens could instantly look up and understand the complete voting records of their legislators.

The site does much more than just assemble the raw “yea and nay” vote tallies in one place. Mackinac Center Senior Legislative Analyst Jack McHugh  translates the obscure language of complex bills into concise, plain-English descriptions.

These descriptions don’t just parrot politicians’ intentions, but simply explain the real prohibitions, mandates, favors and bureaucratic procedures that thousands of proposed new laws would impose, grant or create. The descriptions have been characterized as “objective but brutally honest.”

In the MichiganVotes database, there are now plain-English descriptions of nearly 22,000 bills, 18,000 roll call votes, 15,000 amendments, and 4,000 new laws adopted since the start of 2001.

MichiganVotes statistics - click to enlarge

The site’s easy-to-use tools allow residents to search and sort this mass of information in powerful ways. The Mackinac Center’s manager of information systems, Steve Frick, is constantly improving the MichiganVotes interface to make it more user-friendly and customizable. For example, a person can look up his or her representative’s votes on all bills in the “tax” category that contain the word “increase,” or create a voting scorecard to rate all 148 lawmakers on any issue or ideological standard.

Thanks to MichiganVotes.org, every Michigan lawmaker who has served during the past 10 years has an easily uncovered “permanent record.” It’s now a lot harder for politicians to say one thing in the district, do something else in Lansing and depend on nobody telling the folks back home.

Not surprisingly, journalists were among the site’s early adopters, and they have used it to help explain or expose many stories. A Lansing State Journal editorial referenced MichiganVotes when condemning a complicated “fund raid” the Legislature had launched on gas tax revenue, and TV stations and newspapers around the state run annual “gotcha” stories that rely on MichiganVotes’ “missed votes” report.

The value of the site’s database grows each year. Many Michigan legislators move on to other positions in government, but their record will follow them on MichiganVotes. (Imagine how useful this would have been if an obscure Illinois state senator with a record of voting “present” on controversial issues had been from Michigan instead.)

A weekly “Roll Call Vote Report” tells newspapers how their local lawmakers voted on measures selected by McHugh, editor of MichiganVotes. More recently, dozens of local Tea Party leaders have been added to the recipient list, “democratizing” this information in a way that’s making misbehaving legislators squirm.

In addition to this weekly “best/worst of” report, nearly 4,000 residents now receive user-customized daily session reports with descriptions of all legislative actions taken that day on whatever issue categories they have selected. No registration is required to have free access to all the information on the site, but more than 8,000 people have registered for the lively MichiganVotes forum on which individual votes, bills and lawmakers are discussed, praised and condemned.

Every month, 15,000 unique visitors access the site to look up particular bills or do comprehensive searches of a lawmaker’s record.

MichiganVotes is not an easy project to maintain — translating all those bills and votes into plain English consumes considerable time. But the value of the effort has been noticed by free-market think tanks in other states, and McHugh and Frick have helped set up Votes.org sites that are now live in seven other states.