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.