(Reposted March 31) “Make It Emphatic — Vote Straight Democratic!”
That iconic slogan has been the Michigan Democratic Party’s campaign battle cry since the Depression, inciting voters to cast their ballots for every Democratic nominee on the general election ballot. Until this year, state law has made that easy for voters because all they had to do was check one box at the top of ballot marked “Democrat.”
Of course, Republicans and independents by law could do the same thing, but there’s considerable evidence that those voters are apt to be pickier, voting for each office one-by-one all the way down the ballot, sometimes splitting their tickets.
As a result, there is one group of offices in state government where Michigan Democrats have been dominant for a long time — the four education boards elected on a statewide basis.
Under the current state Constitution, adopted by the voters in 1963, Republicans have been in the minority on all four panels way more often than not, and they are now. In more than half a century, they have never held a majority on the Wayne State University Board of Governors, and they’ve been outnumbered by their Democratic rivals on the University of Michigan Board of Regents, the Michigan State University Board of Trustees, and the State Board of Education for almost the entirety of the 21st century so far.
Michigan Republicans think there is a reason for their lack of success — “Make It Emphatic” straight-ticket voting, which was legal in the state until the GOP-controlled Legislature banned it late last year with bills signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. While there’s evidence in the 20-some states (including Michigan) that have allowed straight-ticket voting that it can help either major political party depending on the circumstances and locale, on balance it seems to have helped Democratic candidates more in Michigan than it has Republicans.
No statewide elected offices are more susceptible to being influenced at the ballot box by what happens at the top of the ticket or the ability of a voter to pull a single lever on behalf of one party than the four state education boards, the nominees to which are unknown to most voters. Examples include the Republican sweep in 2010, when Snyder racked up a huge 17-point win in his race for the governorship, helping Republicans win all eight board posts (two on each of the four panels) that were up for grabs that year. Conversely, Democrats won big at the top of the ticket, with straight-ticket voting reinforcing their advantage, in 2006, 2008 and 2012; needless to say, Dems swept all eight ed board contests on the ballot in those years.
Sometimes there are marginal exceptions, but, even in 2014, when Snyder won re-election by four points and Attorney General Bill Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson were victorious by comfortable margins, Democrats nevertheless managed to capture seven of the eight ed board races. Only Republican Melanie Foster managed to evade the Democratic sweep by squeaking out one of the two MSU board seats.
That was too much for former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser, one of two GOP nominees for the U-M Board of Regents in 2014. Weiser spent heavily but lost in the general election to a pair of Democrats, so it’s no coincidence that, a year later, the GOP-dominated Legislature repealed straight-ticket voting.
The result? This year will be the first test, under the current Constitution, of voting without straight-ticket voting being possible. Every voter will have to vote for each office s/he chooses to, one-by-one. Of course, it may all turn out to be moot if, say, the Republican nominee (Donald Trump?) is blown away by double digits, as John McCain was in 2008. If that happens, it won’t matter whether straight-ticket voting is legal or not — the Michigan GOP will be decimated in the ed board races.
Below is an early look at the partisan stakes for each of the four boards this year. On only one of them (MSU) could the GOP possibly emerge with the majority, for the first time in more than a decade. On the other three, the best the Republicans can do is gain a tie:
STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION: This panel is controlled, 6-2, by the Democrats. As usual, there are two seats up for grabs, as there are every two years — this time, it’s SBE President John Austin of Ann Arbor, who has already served a pair of eight-year terms, and his runningmate, former board prez Kathleen Straus of Detroit, who with three terms under her belt is the panel’s senior member. If both Dems win, the partisan line-up will remain the same for the next two years, 6D/2R. If both Straus and Austin lose, the GOP will pull into a 4-4 tie. If there is a split (it’s happened before!), such as Straus winning but Austin losing, the Dems will still hold a 5-3 majority. Whether or not Straus and Austin run, one Democrat who has announced is former state Rep. John Stewart of Plymouth, who served three terms in the state House of Representatives before switching parties. The only Republican who has registered to run this time is Al Gui of Royal Oak, a 52-year-old African-American math instructor who finished last among five candidates running for the GOP nomination for the state senate in the 13th district in 2014. GOP candidates have until June 14 to file as candidates for any of the four boards, nominations for which are made at the parties’ fall state conventions.
MSU BOARD OF TRUSTEES: After a rare decade in the minority, Democrats finally got control of this panel, 5-3, in 2006 balloting. They have held on to their majority ever since, and their current margin is the same, 5-3. Trouble is, both seats up this year — those of Democratic incumbents Dianne Byrum of Onondaga and Diann Woodard of Brownstown — they already hold, so they can’t improve on their majority even if Byrum and Woodard both win. The GOP, however, could recapture control of the panel with a sweep, and, if the two slots are split, there will be a 4-4 tie. The only Republican who has registered to run this year is Jackson businessman William Deary, a major MSU sports philanthropist and CEO of Great Lakes Caring Home Health & Hospice.
U-M BOARD OF REGENTS: Democrats currently control this panel, 6-2, and therefore have the most to lose in 2012 balloting because they currently occupy both seats that will be up this year. The incumbents — attorney Laurence Deitch of Detroit and Denise Ilitch of Bingham Farms are expected to run again, so Republicans would have to knock off both (or their replacement nominees) to pull into a 4-4 tie. If only one of the two Dem nominees is upset, the Democratic majority will be cut to 5-3. If both Dems win, their party will retain its 6-2 split. As noted above, ex-Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser of Ann Arbor has already registered to be one of the two GOP nominees at his party’s fall state conclave.
WAYNE STATE U. BOARD OF GOVERNORS: This is the board where, historically, Michigan Democrats have had their greatest electoral success. Currently, their margin is the same as on the U-M and SBE panels — 6-2. That means if their two incumbents (Gary Pollard of Detroit and Paul Massaron of Southfield) who will be on the ballot this year if they’re renominated (not necessarily a certainty at union-dominated Democratic state conventions) and re-elected, the Dems’ majority margin will stay the same. If one of the Dems’ nominees fails to finish in the Top Two, however, the Dems’ margin will recede to 5-3. If both do, the Republicans will pull into a 4-4 tie. No GOP aspirants have surfaced yet.