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Published: Friday, 5/19/2006

What's bad for democracy? Giving voters little choice

LANSING, Mich. - U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D., Detroit) got some bad press a few weeks ago when it was reported that she leases an expensive Cadillac to drive around her district.

Leases it, that is, at a cost to the taxpayers of almost $10,000 a year. That seems especially noteworthy given that her district is one of the physically smallest and financially poorest in the nation. But we now know that Ms. Kilpatrick, the mother of Detroit's sometimes flamboyant mayor, will be re-elected in November - possibly unanimously. That's because nobody filed to oppose her in either the primary or the general election by last Tuesday's deadline.

To be sure, minor-party candidates can get on the ballot as late as July 20, so she might still face a Workers World or Prohibition Party opponent, but if she does, nobody will notice.

And she's not alone. Across Michigan, a small but growing number of candidates are getting a free ride this year. Term limits, the enormous cost of campaigns, and one-party districts have meant that many voters are no longer getting any choice - and that has to be bad for democracy.

U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D., Dearborn) is another candidate without a single opponent. His lack of opposition seems more understandable, given that he is the dean of the House of Representatives; he has served in that body longer than anybody else now there, and almost longer than anyone in history.

But though Mr. Dingell may deserve election, he has powerful and controversial views on issues from free trade to auto-emissions standards. Shouldn't he be forced to debate, explain, and defend his positions? And, to put it delicately, he will be 80 in July. What if he were to become infirm or seriously ill before the Aug. 8 primary or the Nov. 7 general elections? Nobody wants that to happen, but if it does, voters will have no choice.

Frankly, this is a failure of democracy - as it is any time any candidate whose name is not George Washington runs unopposed.

Once upon a time, the major parties usually thought they had an obligation not to let this happen, especially in major races.

There was an unwritten tradition that a politician might someday be called upon to take one for the team and be the party's standard-bearer in a hopeless race. When that happened, your job was to do your best to represent your party's positions on the issues and call your opponent's failings to account.

If you did a good job, and maybe even made a better showing than expected, you could expect to be rewarded down the line, maybe with an appointed position or a more winnable race.

Things are different now, however. John F. Kennedy, running as a Democrat, couldn't beat most of the state's solidly entrenched GOP congressmen. Nor would a reincarnated Abraham Lincoln have a ghost of a chance against Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick.

That's because the districts are drawn to make sure one party wins, every time. That's great for incumbents, but not for democracy.

Nor, really, is it good for the parties. Most major candidates have grown a lot following some early election loss. Back in the 1970s, two young men ran for Congress in their home states and got their clocks cleaned. Their names were Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Both learned from that experience.

Too few will be learning similar lessons this year.

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Could Michigan be key in the flag-burning debate?

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) is favored to win re-election to a second term this year, most likely over Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, the GOP primary front-runner.

But she has angered two groups who are among her strongest supporters, liberals and the American Civil Liberties Union. That's because she has endorsed the so-called "flag burning" constitutional amendment, which should be up for a vote soon in the U.S. Senate.

The amendment, which actually talks about flag desecration, not burning, has come up for a vote several times but has always failed to get the needed two-thirds approval in the Senate.

Now, supporters are believed to be within a vote or two of the number needed. If the Senate passes the amendment, it will be sent to the state legislatures, which are expected to ratify it easily.

Those who want to outlaw flag burning are pushing the amendment because the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly said it is a constitutionally protected form of free speech.

But even some of those who find flag burning distasteful are worried that the amendment could tie up lawmakers and courts for years in arguments about what constitutes flag desecration.

And while they won't say so, especially in an election year, more than a few politicians privately wish the issue would just go away.



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