Previous articles here have documented how legislative candidates frequently use the MichiganVotes.org Web site to investigate the voting records of their opponents, or just to better follow and understand complex legislation.
Indeed, almost since its inception the free Web site has become an institution among Michigan's political establishment, reporters, local government officials and citizen activists, thanks to its concise, plain-language descriptions of every bill, amendment and vote in the Michigan Legislature. These are searchable by legislator, bill number, issue category, keyword and date range, making it easy to create a custom voting record guide about any legislator on any issue.
In particular, candidates of both parties running against incumbents refer to MichiganVotes as "one-stop shopping for opposition research." That was not the goal when the Mackinac Center designed the site back in 2000 - MichiganVotes was intended first and foremost to provide regular people with a tool for imposing greater accountability on their elected officials. That is still its most common use. But we can't pretend that the thought of all those campaigns using our Web site to flyspeck their opponents' voting records doesn't make us smile.
One of the most powerful tools the site offers is the ability to view a particular legislator's voting record on a particular issue. For example, a user can perform an advanced search for votes by House Speaker Andy Dillon, House Minority Leader Craig DeRoche or any lawmaker on all bills in the "tax" category. Since the start of 2007 there have been 250 such votes, and there's a brief description of each on the site.
Still, that's almost too many to be useful. However, narrowing the search to tax votes in which the description contains the keyword "increase" reduces the figure to 26, among which are the critical votes last fall to raise the income tax to 4.35 percent, levy a 6 percent sales tax on many services, and replace that tax with a 22 percent surcharge on the Michigan Business Tax. How a representative or senator voted on these and many other issues is surely something that inquiring minds will want to know - and can easily discover on MichiganVotes.
Another feature of the site is a "Missed Votes Report," showing how many record roll call votes each legislator missed during a given period, and which votes were missed. In the current Legislature the highest number is 279 missed votes, and 12 out of 148 lawmakers haven't missed any.
Voters shouldn't automatically jump to conclusions about these, however. Legislators are people too, and family emergencies, health problems or other issues can legitimately cause missed votes. For example, the senator with the most missed votes (193) was on active military duty during all or most of these. But sometimes a lawmaker just isn't showing up for work - or may be hiding in the bathroom on certain hot-button votes. The missed votes report is the starting point for discovering the slackers, if any.
Another surprise the site provided was when users began using its "citizen comments" feature as an online discussion forum. Originally the idea was that a user would post a comment on a particular bill, legislators reading it would ponder and deliberate, and perhaps the legislation would be modified (or discarded) as a result.
Instead, what's happened is that communities of passionate interest have discovered themselves on the site, posting hundreds or thousands of comments as they talk to each other about certain bills of particular concern or relevance. For example, there are more than 4,000 comments on a bill to revise the time off for good behavior rules in prisons, most posted by prisoners' families. A bill to extend unemployment benefits has almost 500 comments, and the perennial motorcycle helmet issue features a lively conversation with some 1,700 exchanges. A new upgrade of the site coming soon will bring these discussions right out onto the home page via full-feature online forum software - stay tuned.
Here's the bottom line: The machinations, manipulations and plain-old "sausage making" of the Legislature used to be hidden behind opaque procedures, obscure language and oceans of spin. There's still plenty of smoke being blown, but the air is quickly cleared by the transparency provided by an innovative, user-friendly Web site that puts the actions of Michigan's legislators at your fingertips. If you haven't checked out MichiganVotes.org before, the period before this pivotal election is the perfect time to do so.
Jack McHugh is senior legislative analyst at 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.