More than 200 people filled the Flint Public Library on April 23 to share their thoughts on restoring the public’s trust in state and local government with Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Congressman Dan Kildee, Mayor Karen Weaver and state Rep. Sheldon Neeley.
Benson kicked off the town hall by outlining three areas that she identified as being key to earning back residents’ trust: ensuring that there are no barriers to voting, ending gerrymandering and increasing government transparency by expanding FOIA and requiring state legislators to disclose their personal finances annually.
But Benson warned that all these things hinge on the public being involved.
“We all – the elected officials that are here tonight and elsewhere in our state – will be working hard to make these changes happen. But we cannot do it without you. That’s the real irony and beauty in democracy reforms,” Benson said. “As I go around the state having these conversations with our citizens, nowhere is it more important, and nowhere do the citizens know more directly what happens when your voices aren’t heard.”
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Underscoring that point, Benson said that 20 of 100 precincts with the state’s lowest voter turnout rates are in Flint – something that she hopes to change for the 2020 election cycle.
“It’s not just enough to have our turnout go from 60 percent to 70 percent statewide. I want to drill down into the places, the neighborhoods, in our state where people are not voting,” Benson said. “The goal here is to reach people who aren’t engaged, who aren’t voting, go to where they are and say: What can we do better? How can we serve them better and what’s not working so that we can try to fix it?”
Neeley, who recently announced that he is running for Flint mayor, agreed with Benson.
“We have a great opportunity to provide more access to voting, but we have to first deal with all the self-inflicted wounds because we know when the moment comes that, on a good day, we have 20 percent turnout,” Neeley said. “What Secretary Benson is doing is creating greater access to the voting possibilities for all of us, but we first have to take care of our self-inflicted wounds.”
Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative in November 2018 to allow for automatic and same-day voter registration in the state, something that Benson says could help to increase turnout.
But further election reforms could be coming at a national level, with the new Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives dedicating their first bill to the issue.
Kildee specifically addressed provisions of the bill which would require any state that accepts federal support to hold their legislators to the same standard as members of Congress when it comes to disclosure laws, including requiring them to file an annual income report.
“If people are armed with information, our democratic system works. If people are placed in the dark and they don’t know how their interests are being contradicted by their public officials, bad things like what happened in Flint take place; we can’t let that happen anywhere else,” Kildee said.
Benson noted that she understands why Flint residents may be distrustful of their government and may not feel incentivized to vote, citing Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law.
“I remember about a decade ago when I was driving to give a speech about voting rights and I heard on the radio, it was an election day here in Flint, it was a mayoral election that day, it was announced that day, on election day, that the emergency law was going into place in Flint and that the mayor at that point would not be in charge of the city and an emergency manager will be put in Flint instead,” Benson said.
“What is like to be driving to go vote for mayor and hear on the radio that mayor isn’t going to have any power because we are installing an emergency manager instead? That is the essence of the battle we’re fighting here to ensure our voting rights are not taken away.”