Michigan Governor Rick Snyder presents his third state budget before the state legislature in Lansing, Michigan, February 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
A hundred and fifty years ago, in the thick of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln rejected the counsel that suggested he might postpone the 1864 presidential election on the grounds that the national circumstance was too chaotic for voting.
“We cannot have free government without elections,” declared the sixteenth president. “If the rebellion could force us to forgo, or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.”
Lincoln’s commitment to maintain regularly scheduled elections despite all the challenges facing the nation was essential to the formation of the American democratic standard. But what happens when elections are held but those who are elected are not allowed to govern? Can we tell ourselves that democracy has been maintained if it is not respected in any realistic sense by state and federal officials?
That’s a question that the voters of one of America’s great cities, Detroit, are in the process of answering.
Detroit voters trooped to the polls Tuesday to nominate candidates for the city’s top posts in one of the more unsettled—and unsettling—elections in American history.
The voters selected candidates for mayor, city clerk and the city council—all the officials who normally would guide the affairs of one of America’s largest municipalities.
The chosen candidates are running serious campaigns. They will compete in traditional fall contests, with some elected and some defeated. The winners will take office shortly after the election results are certified. And then, the new leaders of Detroit will in all likelihood be forced to sit in official chambers and watch as their city is dismantled by an appointed—not elected—“emergency manager” and a federal bankruptcy judge.
They will not do so willingly. The candidates that initial returns suggest Detroit voters have nominated to replace outgoing Mayor Dave Bing—Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and, with a surge of write-in votes being counted for him, former Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan—have made it clear that they are ready and willing to govern. Summing up the sentiments of most Detroit candidates this year, Napoleon, a former Detroit police chief, says that “the mayor should be able to set the priorities.”