Long on Words, Short on Reform

A group named "Reform Michigan Government Now" submitted petition signatures on July 7 to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. While the backers of the proposal have yet to identify themselves, the measure is being billed as an effort to increase government accountability. In reality, the proposal appears to be an attempt to rewrite the state Constitution through reams of fine print.

Among other things, the proposal would eliminate legislative seats, cut legislators’ pay and alter the number of judges serving on Michigan courts. The proposed amendment, as it appears on the Reform Michigan Government Now Web site, runs to 12 pages of small type. In order to comply with Michigan law governing ballot initiatives, this sizable document and all its provisions would need to be summarized in 100 words or less — a preposterous task.

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To get a better idea of the amendment’s length, I copied it into a Word document and changed the font to the default Times New Roman 12 point. The amendment ballooned to 36 pages. A word count revealed that the amendment is an unbelievable 19,503 words long.

To be fair, the RMGN proposal includes long excerpts of existing language from the state Constitution in order to satisfy a legal requirement imposed on all ballot proposals. But even without these excerpts, the measure is still 7,279 words long.

To put that figure in context, the original U.S. Constitution — the document that details the powers and processes of the entire federal government — is about 4,500 words long, not counting the signatures. Throw in the Bill of Rights (and its little-known preamble), and this inspired work runs to only 5,400 words or so. With the Declaration of Independence running about 1,340 words, it appears our key national founding documents combined are still shorter than the operative parts of the Reform Michigan Government Now proposal.

Even in the context of Michigan’s state constitution, the RMGN proposal stands out. At 7,279 words, it is about four times the length of the Headlee amendment of 1978 and about seven times the length of Proposal A of 1994.

How voters can make sense of this behemoth at the ballot box is anyone’s guess. They will be forced to rely on a scant synopsis that could never possibly capture all the amendment’s provisions — more than 30 by even a cautious estimate.

This amendment has other problems that should be explored in detail, but presenting voters with a 100-word summary of a ponderous and convoluted amendment belies the claim that Reform Michigan Government Now is about accountability. Real accountability should be candid and clear.


Michael D. Jahr is director of communications for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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