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Analysis

Corruption is Public Enemy Number 1

New polling from Michigan and Ohio shows likely voters are deeply concerned about government corruption and largely in agreement about the right solutions.
(Photos: Getty Images; Illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO)

According to new polling from the electoral battleground states of Michigan and Ohio, likely voters across the political spectrum are more concerned about corruption in government than any other issue. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, sharp disagreements over gun control, healthcare, infrastructure, the economy, and the looming existential threat of climate change, these surprising results suggest that the public recognizes the vital role that fair, effective, and impartial government must play to solve all other critical problems.

And while hyper-partisanship continues to cause gridlock across many areas of public policy, this polling shows that voters across the political spectrum are largely in agreement about the right solutions for tackling corruption: more enforcement of existing laws and regulations, better restrictions to keep public officials from reaping private benefits, and greater transparency.

Voters say government corruption is the biggest problem facing the country

Voters across Michigan and Ohio report that a host of issues facing the country are “very big problems,” from crime and gun violence (63%) and COVID-19 (61%) to the affordability of healthcare (57%) and climate change (46%). However, corruption in government rises to the top of the list, with 89% of voters identifying it as a problem and 65% saying it is a “very big problem.”

Last month, the Project On Government Oversight conducted a survey of likely 2022 voters in Michigan and Ohio. In addition to ranking a set of prominent issue areas by importance, voters were also asked directly how concerned they were about corruption in the federal government. More than 70% of participants reported that they were “very” or “extremely” concerned about corruption in the federal government, including 45% who were “extremely concerned.”

Sixty-five percent of surveyed Michigan and Ohio voters say it is a “very big problem.”

Voters in these battleground states believe that corruption is widespread and costly. A striking majority across both states — 81% — agree that corruption is widespread throughout the federal government. An even larger majority of voters across Michigan and Ohio — 90% — agree that corruption in the federal government costs the taxpayer a lot of money.

What’s more, voters believe that corruption in the federal government is getting worse. Nearly three-quarters of participants across both states — 73% — say corruption in the federal government has increased over the last ten years. When asked whether corruption has increased, decreased, or stayed about the same in 2021, 57% said corruption has continued to increase, and 24% say it has stayed the same.

71% of voters agree that corruption in government isn’t a Democrat or Republican problem.

In general, these findings hold across participants in both states. In each, a solid majority of voters — 89% — say corruption in government is a problem.

In Michigan, that number includes 61% who say corruption is a very big problem. A follow-up question showed 67% of Michigan voters reported being concerned, with 40% extremely concerned, about corruption. A full 80% agreed that corruption is widespread throughout the government, with 50% strongly agreeing. And 88% of Michiganders said they agree that corruption costs taxpayers a lot of money, with 66% of voters strongly agreeing.\

In Ohio, an even larger percentage of voters say corruption is a very big problem — 69%. Asked about corruption, 79% reported being concerned, with 51% extremely concerned. And 83% agreed that corruption is widespread, with 69% of voters strongly agreeing. Like their neighbors in Michigan, a majority of Ohio voters — 92% — agreed corruption costs taxpayers a lot of money, with 79% of voters strongly agreeing.

Voters are deeply concerned about a variety of corrupt activities

The survey also reveals that voters across both battleground states are very concerned about a host of different types of corruption in which government officials and employees may partake. Voters expressed the most concern over bribery, embezzlement, kickbacks, and extortion (87% concerned, 67% very concerned), taking or benefitting from political contributions made by foreign actors or individuals/sectors seeking to secretly influence policy (87% concerned, 65% very concerned), and taking or benefitting from political contributions from an individual, sector, or company seeking special tax breaks or government contracts and then pushing for their interests (90% concerned, 65% very concerned). Solid majorities of voters across states, gender, age, party identification, education, and metro area are very concerned with these three types of corrupt behavior.

Voters across both battleground states are very concerned about a host of different types of corruption in which government officials and employees may partake.

At least six in ten voters also expressed concerns about conflicts of interest (89% concerned, 61% very concerned) and about officials making policy decisions that result in personal or family-related benefits (90% concerned, 60% very concerned). In fact, majorities across states, genders, age, party identification, education, and metro area reported that they were very concerned about officials making policy that results in personal benefits.

Voters show broad agreement on how best to combat corruption

Perhaps the most encouraging result from this survey is that a broad coalition of voters support a host of measures the federal government is considering enacting this year to prevent or stop corruption in government from happening.

Michigan and Ohio voters agreed on a number of anti-corruption measures. Across state and party lines, a majority of respondents think removing corrupt officials and banning them from working in public office in the future would be the most effective measure to address corruption, followed by enforcing rules that make it hard for officials to personally benefit from their policy decisions, and increasing transparency in political spending.

Across state and party lines, voters in Michigan and Ohio agree that removing corrupt officials and banning them from public office would be the most effective measure Congress could implement to prevent or stop corruption in government.

Other solutions resonated more with either Democrats or Republicans while still appealing to a healthy majority of respondents. Passing an anti-corruption act, improving protections for whistleblowers, imposing monetary fines, and keeping government watchdogs independent also receive strong support from the majority of voters, but the intensity of this support varies somewhat based on political party identification. While a majority of Democrats say improving protections for whistleblowers and keeping government watchdogs independent would be very effective, a majority of Republicans say passing an anti-corruption act and imposing monetary fines would be very effective.

Despite these differences, 71% of voters agree that “corruption in government isn’t a Democrat or Republican problem.” About half of all respondents — 52% of Michiganders and 48% of Ohioans — strongly agree with this statement.

Passing an anti-corruption act, improving protections for whistleblowers, imposing monetary fines, and keeping government watchdogs independent were also supported by a majority of voters.

Here are the percentages of Michigan and Ohio voters who said these proposed anti-corruption measures would be “effective” or “very effective”:

  • Removing corrupt officials and banning them from working in public office in the future — 85%.
  • Enforcing rules that make it hard for government officials to personally benefit from their policy decisions — 80%.
  • Making it harder for government officials to profit from their policy choices by requiring them to refrain from trading on inside knowledge — 81%.
  • Increasing the transparency of political spending, including making information on contributions accessible in real time online — 78%.
  • Passing an anti-corruption act that would limit political involvement in government contracts and ban political contributions by government contractors — 79%.
  • Improving protections for people who witness and report corruption, like whistleblowers — 82%.
  • Imposing monetary fines, legal penalties, and prosecution for people or organizations who commit offenses connected to corruption — 79%.
  • Keeping government watchdogs independent, allowing them to do their job of providing oversight for the government agency they are tasked with investigating — 77%.

Voters agree on key messages for combatting corruption: Close the revolving door; Protect whistleblowers and inspectors general

Likely voters in Ohio and Michigan were also asked which arguments that supporters of measures to fight and prevent corruption have made were most convincing to them. Overall, the top messages focused on closing the “revolving door” — the practice of former government officials leaving their government position to work for corporations or special interest groups they oversaw while working in government — and ensuring protections for whistleblowers and inspectors general who provide independent oversight of federal agencies. These messages were said to be “very convincing” across state, gender, age, education level, and metro area.

More than three-quarters of voters in Michigan and Ohio said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who has a plan to reduce corruption.

What’s more, voters want to see candidates put their anti-corruption plans forward. More than three-quarters of voters in Michigan (76%) and Ohio (82%) said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who has a plan to reduce corruption. When the sample was limited to just primary voters, 51% of respondents across both states said that they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who failed to publicize a plan to reduce the influence of special interests and corruption in government.

The Project On Government Oversight commissioned Lake Research Partners to conduct a survey of registered, likely 2022 voters in Michigan and Ohio to capture attitudes towards government corruption. The survey was conducted in late August and early September and included 600 participants (300 in each state). Participants reflected a mix of race/ethnicity, ages, urbanicity, party identification, ideology, educational attainment, household income, marital status, employment status, and parental status. The overall margin of error for the entire sample is +/- 4.0 and +/- 5.7 for the individual states. The results show broad agreement across state and party lines about the importance of addressing government corruption and the most effective solutions.