Lawmakers In Trouble: What Happens When Constituents Go Without Representation?

Sen. Virgil Smith’s resignation means the Detroit seat will likely be empty for months

Jake Neher/WDET

State Sen. Virgil Smith (D-Detroit) is in jail for shooting his ex-wife’s car last May. He submitted his resignation letter last week, avoiding a situation in which he could continue to collect a taxpayer-funded paycheck from behind bars. But the seat remains vacant until the state can hold a special primary and general election. That probably won’t happen for months.

It’s just the latest in a series of vacated seats in Lansing this legislative session. Others include seats once held by former representatives Todd Courser (R-Lapeer) and Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell), who were forced out after a sex-and-cover-up scandal. Those two now face criminal charges. Democrats Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids) and Derek Miller (D-Warren) didn’t do anything wrong, but they also left their seats this session to become Michigan Democratic Party chair and Macomb County Treasurer, respectively. 

What does it mean for constituents to lose representation? Who, if anyone, serves as their voice when elected officials make important decisions that affect their lives?

John Lindstrom, publisher of the Gongwer News Service, which covers state government in Lansing, says this has been an unusual legislative session in terms of vacated seats – although empty seats at the state Capitol are nothing new.

“Hopefully you are still going to have some sort of legislative representation,” Lindstrom told Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson, noting that usually a constituent still has somebody representing them in the other legislative chamber. For example, people formerly represented by Sen. Smith in the Senate still have representatives in the state House.

Some listeners called in to say they think the problem lies more with lawmakers who do show up and are on the job and make questionable decisions.

To hear more from our conversation on lack of representation in state government, click on the audio file above.