BATTLE OF THE BOARDS: REPUBLICANS MADE UNUSUAL GAINS AT THE COUNTY LEVEL LAST FALL
In an historic first, Michigan Republicans actually gained seats on County Boards of Commissioners statewide last Nov. 8, even though the GOP got wiped out at the top of the ticket, losing every statewide office on the ballot, some by double digits.
That’s never happened before. In no previous election over the last half-century+ has the political party that won by a decisive margin at the top of the ticket suffered a net loss of seats on county boards, as the Democrats did in 2022.
Specifically, of the 619 county commissioners elected in Michigan last year, 447 (72.2 percent) were Republicans — an increase of eight from the 2020 election, according to the Michigan Association of Counties. Democrats won 156 seats (25.5%), but that’s a drop from the 169 they had during 2021-22. Independents or “No Party Affiliation” won 16 seats (2.8%) last fall, two more than they had in the previous cycle.
35 counties now have all-Republican boards, up from 31 in 2021-22. By contrast, only three — Wayne, Washtenaw and Marquette — are now led entirely by Democrats, the same number as in the last two years. Some consolation for Democrats is that they somehow actually increased the number of boards they control by one, from 12 to 13, although that’s miniscule compared with Republicans, who now control 67 boards, down one from the last cycle. Three boards are tied.
The question is: Why did this happen? Bridge magazine thinks it knows why. Here’s what a Jan. 6 article by Mike Wilkinson says about what occurred last November:
“Unlike state legislators, whose new boundaries were drawn in 2021 by an independent bipartisan citizens commission, county commissioners ran in districts that are still designed and approved by partisan actors.
“Under a 1966 state law, county commission boundaries are approved by a local redistricting commission composed of three elected officials — the county clerk, treasurer and prosecutor — along with leaders of the county Republican and Democratic parties.
“So whichever party controlled at least two of the three elected offices can control the process to approve boundary maps. The commission posts are important because commissioners set policies on everything from economic development to human services while overseeing millions of dollars in spending.”
Attorney David Richards has noted in a comment to The Ballenger Report that “Oakland County is the one exception to having three county-wide elected officials and one more member from each of the major parties doing the redistricting. After the 2010 census, the Democrats had won the county treasurer and county prosecutor offices, giving the Democrats control of redistricting in Oakland County. But Republican County Executive Brooks Patterson went to Lansing and had the Republican legislature change the procedure after the fact, giving the then Republican county commissioners in Oakland County the power to do their own redistricting, with the bill signed by Governor Snyder. In other words, the rules of the game were changed after the game was played. So Oakland County does not use the system described. Maybe the manipulation backfired, as the Democrats now have the majority on the Oakland County Commission.”
Continuing with Wilkinson’s article: “Removing politicians from the drawing of legislative boundaries was the impetus for state voters’ approval in 2018 of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) for state and Congressional races. This past November was the first election based on the redrawn maps.
“Making sure the maps did not give any party a political advantage was a top priority of the MICRC. However, at the county level, it’s the last of eight guiding principles, which are listed in descending order of importance.”
Bridge quotes Douglas Spencer, a law professor at the University of Colorado who manages a website, All About Redistricting, that focuses on redistricting across the nation and advocates for reforms to end partisan gerrymandering. “If history is our guide, I would expect (partisan redistricting) to be leaned into,” Spencer said. “Those who are in power,” he said, “are balancing all of the factors to (work) in their favor.”
Nancy Wang, whose organization Voters Not Politicians spearheaded the petition drive that led to the 2018 ballot proposal creating the MICRC, agrees with Spencer and says her group is ready to expand the MICRC’s work to the county level.
Here’s the good news for Wang and her supporters — it doesn’t take a massive petition-gathering drive to put such a reform on the statewide ballot. County Commissioner reapportionment is governed by statute, and can be changed simply by the Legislature passing a bill to mandate a change in the redistricting process, provided the governor signs it into law. Everything is in place right now for Wang, Bridge magazine, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature to accomplish exactly what Bridge and Wang want — they could just pass a bill to do it.
Problem is, Michigan counties have used the same system of reapportioning their boards after decennial censes over the past six decades as they did last year, yet results such as yielded on 11/8/22 have never happened before now.
In other words, political gerrymandering does not explain the increase in Republican commissioners statewide in this cycle even while the GOP was clobbered at the top of the ticket.
Bridge’s Wilkinson points out that broad geographic stretches of Michigan have become more conservative and more heavily Republican over time, especially in rural areas, while Democratic voters tend to dominate heavily-populated urban areas. That explains how Whitmer could win easily in the governor’s race even as Tudor Dixon, her Republican challenger, captured 66 of Michigan’s 83 counties.
Wilkinson singles out Bay and Alger counties in particular: In both counties, Democrats controlled the redistricting process because they held a majority of county “political” (meaning elected) positions, but the counties’ conservative voters flipped both boards to Republicans in November. In Bay County, a 6-1 Democratic majority became a 4-3 Republican body. Alger, in the Upper Peninsula, went from four Democrats and an Independent to four Republicans and a Democrat.
Democrats lost legal challenges to maps drawn both in Kent and Macomb counties — places where Whitmer won the county vote but Republicans remained in control of county commissioner seats.
But in Washtenaw County, home to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Republicans were the party that appears to have been the victim of gerrymandering. Almost half the townships in the county were won by Donald Trump, yet the GOP was shut out completely in county board seats.
For purposes of comparison, what did things look like in the first decade or so of the 21st Century?
In 2008, a Democratic “wave” year in which Barack Obama was elected president and easily carried Michigan, Democrats gained 65 seats on county boards statewide (boosting them to 44.9% of all 686 commissioners). Democrats controlled 36 boards after that election, which was their highest number since the current system of electing county boards was instituted in 1969.
By contrast, two years later, in 2010, a Republican “wave” year in which Rick Snyder was elected governor in a landslide, Republicans gained a whopping 65 board seats statewide (65.0% of the same 686 total) and upped their control of the state’s 83 boards to 58. Democrats were reduced to 33.7% of all commissioners.
Going back in time to the 1990s, ’80s, and ’70s, those kinds of results were always the same — until last year.
Let’s take a look at 10 years ago, after the last census and county reapportionment before the current one. Remember, 2012 was when Obama was re-elected and carried Michigan by roughly 10% over Republican Mitt Romney. Here’s how the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics analyzed the situation, which was much more like the norm during half a century before what happened last 11/8:
“BATTLE OF THE BOARDS: DEMOCRATS LOST A FEW SEATS, BUT GOP LOST A LOT MORE (Dec. 3, 2012 IMP, Vol. XIV, No. 4)
“Call it addition by subtraction.
“Democratic candidates for County Boards of Commissioners lost six seats (out of 622 statewide) in the Nov. 6, 2012 general election, but that was only because the total number of commissioners — spread over 83 counties — was cut nearly 10% from the 686 that existed during 2011-12.
“There was a move to downsize government via reapportionment at the local level last year, and that — combined with the results of last month’s general election that cost the Republicans big-time in races for county boards, because the GOP’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, lost Michigan to Barack Obama by nearly 10% (and the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, Pete Hoekstra, was blitzed by 19 points). Republicans lost a whopping 56 county board seats, nearly 10 times as many as the Democrats lost.
“There were actually 699 seats in place during most of the last decade, but Macomb County’s adoption of a new charter in 2010 cut its board size in half, meaning that there were only 686 commissioners going into last month’s election. And let’s not forget that 25 counties adopted post-census redistricting plans that cut the number of their commissioners, largely in an effort to save money. Only one (Menominee) increased the size of its board.
“Now that the dust has settled, Democrats appear to have won 226 seats on county boards in last month’s balloting. That translates into majority control of 25 boards during 2013-14, which is two more than the party had during the 2011-12 cycle. Republicans hold an edge on 56 boards, which is two less than they had in the past couple of years. One county, Alpena, will have a 4-4 split, and in another county, Keweenaw, Democrats seem to hold a slight plurality but not a majority because two of the panel’s five members claim to have “No Party Affiliation (NPA)” ….
“NPAs were down to six from eight in the previous cycle. Females declined from 19.0% in 2011-12 to 18.8% in 2013-14 …
“Republicans now constitute 62.7% of all board membership statewide, Democrats 36.3%. That’s about 2.5% less than the GOP had going into the election. Democrats have 2.5% more … Putting things in greater historical perspective, the proportion for each party is only about 1% different than it was a dozen years ago, after the 2000 election. Keep in mind that many of the GOP’s members are in the most sparsely-populated counties, whereas Democrats hold the upper hand in the lion’s share of the state’s largest counties, such as Wayne, Genesee, Saginaw, Ingham, Muskegon, and Washtenaw …”
Bottom line: The pattern was always the same, until last year.
I’m not sure that this matters since probably 95% of the county boards function as effectively nonpartisan in the same way as most city councils. Macomb, Oakland, Wayne, Bay and Kent seem to be the only counties where commissioners are overly partisan most of the time. Personally, I’d like to see the US Supreme Court strike down the Baker v Carr decision and others that flowed from it. Counties should return to the supervisor model, which is what the Constitution envisions. Under that system, the county board consists of the supervisor of every township. I forget how the cities were represented. Baker v Carr created a whole new class of politicians — county commissioners — that have both executive and legislative authorities. Counties shouldn’t be municipalities that supplant cities, villages and townships. They should be mere administrative arms of the state.
Matt Crehan says
Couldn’t agree more! The Baker decision created this unwieldly structure that actually takes power away from Cities, Townships and Villages, giving it to another layer of unneeded elected officials. In the process, this group has made County government grow much larger and have more power than it otherwise would.
Another decision that SCOTUS could overturn is Reynolds v Sims which had the effect of making the Michigan Senate apportioned like the Michigan House; “one man – one vote”. Prior to that time, the Senate was apportioned on a geographic basis, meaning that of the 38 Senators, each would represent approximately 2.2 Counties, regardless of population.
There is a practical reason that each state has two U.S. Senators and its based on an equitable distribution of power. That explains why California and Rhode Island each have two seats in the senate. Can you imagine what would happen if the U.S. Senate was based on “one man – one vote”? The larger states would dominate, and the smaller states would be forgotten, except when it came time to extricate taxes from them.
It’s a good bet that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its present form, would relish the opportunity to reverse Baker and Reynolds. Now who will be the litigant to begin the process? Any takers?
Tim Sullivan says
Nice article, Bill.
First of all, gerrymandering in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County? I’m shocked, shocked I tell you! But more important is the call to change the system from those who do not like the outcome. You correctly point out that the GOP was beaten in all the executive races and lost both houses of the legislature, yet prevailed in county commission races and even gained ground. It is not clear whether the advocates of change have evidence of shenanigans or simply wish to put the peasants back in their place.
This article, though, may show the future of the GOP in Michigan. In an earlier article you referenced how the “establishment” or non-Trumpian Republicans did poorly in organizing, losing control of the state convention by not getting delegates elected, and they essentially threw the top of the ticket under the proverbial bus as Dixon, Karamo and DePerno were slaughtered – financially (though they did pretty well considering how badly they were outspent). It would be interesting to see who these new county commissioners are.
Are they Trumpian/populists who no longer listen to the establishment/business community? If so, they may be in the financial wilderness for some time and will have to organize the old-fashioned way, by talking to people instead of carpet bombing them with money.
Are they establishment types trying to wrest control of the Party back? Will they do the work necessary to regain control of the party, including actual organizing? Or will they just think everyone has a price and can be bought?
Either way, it should be interesting times ahead. I would not be surprised if the new legislature adopts some VNP proposal to change the system (except maybe for the People’s Republic of Ann Arbor or SUNY Ann Arbor if you prefer), especially if they feel it will screw the other side.
Bill Gelineau - 2018 Libertarian nominee for Governor says
Maybe at some point the vast center of American politics will wake up and reject district-oriented representation systems. Are people really shocked that Democrats and Republicans are both dirty players.
Ranked-Choice Voting is the future of representative democracy. Not only will this punish the extremes in both corrupt old parties, but (perhaps) we’ll even develop some empathy for the unique challenges of urban, suburban, and rural living.
Dare to dream…….
David L Richards says
I wonder how the breakdown would look if you compared the number of people represented. The increase in Republican county commission seats is likely the result of the increasing urban-rural split, where urban areas are Democratic and rural areas are Republican. It is possible, maybe even likely, that the proportion of people living in large population urban counties with Democrat-controlled county commissions relative to the number living in small population rural counties with Republican-controlled county commissions increased after the 2022 election.
John C Stewart says
I agree with David. L. Richards regarding the increase in Republican County Commission seats and the reasoning. What still amazes me -is that STATEWIDE-Republicans have only won twice STATEWIDE in the last 25 years (since 1998)
–thank you Rick Snyder + Brian Calley in 2010 and 2014. Period-that’s a FACT. Dems are circling the wagons for Slotkin for US Senate.
David Waymire says
“Problem is, Michigan counties have used the same system of reapportioning their boards after decennial censes over the past six decades as they did last year, yet results such as yielded on 11/8/22 have never happened before now.” But now, every year, the computer-aided ability to draw districts even more tightly for one party or the other continues to grow. In addition, there had been some attention paid to “good ole boy” issues where one party might have protected a friend of the other. That comity is now diminished. The more interesting issue is how the state has steadily removed power from local governments as a whole, including counties, on things from the ability to raise taxes to whether they can impose garbage bag bans.
Mr. Dennis C. Muchmore says
I guess it depends more on whose ox is being gored than on fairness on the drawing board. Not surprising.
dan murphy says
The Genesee County Board of Supervisors , of the pre and post Depression Era ,served the interests of Local Govt and the Citizens admirably. As reported by “The Flint Journal” (Jan 1, 1937) and other local Publications , the Board was” led by conservative Individuals ,slow to act ,but with sound Fiscal results .”When the depression came the County found itself even with the board, rather than staggering under a huge bonded indebtedness as was the case with many counties and municipalities”. “The goal was to keep the tax rate down for the Citizens and the County out of Debt”. ” The tax rate was cut to $3.40, the lowest figure within the memory of county Officials ” . ((Jan. 1,1937, Journal) The Court House and other Structures were completed under budget .Welfare funding was a major responsibility . A state Welfare Commissioner stated (Oct -31-1937 ) , You fellows have been doing a good job over there . “Your finances have always been in good shape”…,”state men have been about ready to step in and ask You how You do it”. Home Rule is capable of providing the best governance ,rather than top down centralized ,dictatorial control .My Dad ,Nicholas Murphy served on the Board of Supervisors from 1922 to Aug. of 1952