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Politics may change, but low voter turnout never does

A "vote here" sign
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Just 13 percent of voters cast ballots in Detroit's primary elections yesterday.

You may not have noticed, but we had primary elections throughout Michigan yesterday. In many places, however, there was no election at all. This is what politicians call an off-off-year.

There are no races for attention-grabbing offices like governor, senator, or president. What people voted on yesterday was a collection of mostly small millage requests, plus a few primary elections for mayor and council seats in places like Detroit and Flint.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

Politicians come and go, and voters swing back and forth. But there is one constant about August primary elections: The overwhelming majority of voters don’t show up.

Take Detroit, for example. Probably the highest profile race in the state was Mike Duggan’s bid to win a second term as mayor. As had been widely expected, he mopped the floor with his main challenger State Senator Coleman Young II.

Duggan got more than two-thirds of all the votes cast, making the November runoff seem little more than an academic exercise. Young got barely more than a quarter of the vote.

It seems likely that those voting for Young were largely those who still aren’t reconciled to having a white mayor of an overwhelmingly African-American city. Plus those impatient with the lack of progress in any Detroit neighborhoods other than those close to downtown and the newly fashionable Midtown.

But while the mayor’s supporters were ecstatic, it is worth noting that 87 percent of the registered voters didn’t bother to vote at all. That’s close to an all-time low.

Not that August primaries are ever popular; turnout rates usually hover around 20 percent. But that so few voted probably indicates people are relatively happy with the way things are going.

What may have been more of a surprise was the vote for clerk. Incumbent Janice Winfrey has gotten generally high marks during the dozen years she held that job, but was embarrassed by sloppy and shoddy irregularities in the way votes were handled last November.

The city’s leading newspaper strongly endorsed newcomer Garlin Gilchrist, a technology whiz. But Winfrey beat him almost three to one, again making the general election seem like a foregone conclusion.

There was also an interesting good news/bad news story in one Detroit city council race. Incumbent George Cushingberry failed to even make the runoff, meaning his political career is probably over.

Cush, as everyone called him, was seen as having enormous potential when first elected to the state legislature in 1975, when he was only 22. But his council term began almost four years ago with his arrest for open liquor and pot in his car as he was leaving what police said was a strip club. He later had his law license suspended for questionable ethical behavior.

But one of the two candidates who made the runoff instead was the infamous Virgil Smith Jr., who lost his state senate seat and went to jail after assaulting his ex-wife. He promised then not to run for office, but his word clearly didn’t mean much to him.

Overall, if these elections have any deeper meaning, it is simply this: August is a really silly time to have a primary election since a huge number of voters are on vacation or at the beach.

When it comes to being profound, that’s all I’ve got.

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