Democracy Returns to Michigan

For the first time in at least a decade, voters will have a chance to elect the legislature they want.

In the year since the January 6 coup attempt, Americans have had many opportunities to lament the decline of democracy. Voter suppression laws have passed in multiple states, while several attempts at federal legislation to protect democracy have died in the Senate. But there is good news in at least one state: Michigan.

Structural hurdles at a variety of levels often get in the way of the type of government most Americans believe in (and believe we have): majority rule with legal protections for minority rights. Instead, the Electoral College has allowed the popular-vote loser to claim the presidency in two of the last six elections. In this century, the Senate’s small-state bias has allowed Republicans to control the Senate about half of the time, even though they haven’t represented a majority of country or gotten more aggregate votes than Democrats since 1996. Gerrymandering has given Republicans a 3-5% advantage in the House; in years when the two parties split the vote evenly, Republicans will get a sizeable majority of the seats.

Minority-rule Republican presidents backed by minority-rule Republican senates have established a partisan Republican majority on the Supreme Court that refuses to defend voting rights or end gerrymandering, but will defend the right of billionaires to spend as much as they want on elections.

Few states have endured as much minority rule as Michigan. Back in 2015, Michigan State University’s Spartan Newsroom explained the state’s political situation:

By all accounts, 2014 was a good election year for Republicans in Michigan. They increased their majority in the Michigan House of Representatives by three seats, now holding 63 to Democrats’ 47. Out of the 14 congressional races, Republicans won nine.

You may assume Republicans across the state received substantially more votes than Democrats. However, that assumption would be wrong. Although Republicans won nine of the 14 congressional races, Democrats received about 50,000 more votes out of 3 million cast.

In 2017, AP noticed the a similar pattern.

Last fall, voters statewide split their ballots essentially 50-50 between Republican and Democratic state House candidates. Yet Republicans won 57 percent of the House seats, claiming 63 seats to the Democrats’ 47. That amounted to an efficiency gap of 10.3 percent in favor of Michigan’s Republicans, one of the highest advantages among all states.

That also marked the third straight Michigan House election since redistricting with double-digit efficiency gaps favoring Republicans. [University of Chicago law professor Nick] Stephanopoulos said such a trend is “virtually unprecedented” and indicative of a durable Republican advantage.

In the 2018 elections the pattern continued: Democrats got a majority of the votes, but Republicans got a majority of seats in the legislature. In the state senate, Democrats won 51.3% of the votes, but got only 16 seats to the Republicans’ 22.

Imagine being a Michigan voter outraged by the fact that the Republican leadership of the state legislature was effectively untouchable. What could you do — ask nicely if the gerrymandered legislature would pass a law to end gerrymandering?

It turned out there was still one outlet for the popular will that Republicans hadn’t managed to choke off: ballot initiatives, where the electorate gets to change the law itself. So in 2018, Michigan voters passed Proposal 2 by a 61%-39% margin. (In 2020, Republicans in multiple states tried to put limits on ballot initiatives.)

Prop 2 created

a 13-member citizens redistricting commission made up of four Republicans, four Democrats, and five people who identify with neither party. The proposal would bar partisan officeholders, their employees, lobbyists, and others with ties to the current system from becoming commissioners.

Republicans sued to block the law from taking effect, but they lost, and so

One of the country’s most gerrymandered political maps has suddenly been replaced by one of the fairest.

The new Michigan map still has a slight Republican bias — expect the GOP to hang on to small majorities if the votes split evenly — but that’s because Democrats tend to cluster in Detroit and other cities, not because the Commission rigged things in the GOP’s favor.

And don’t be shocked if Republicans win legitimately. Michigan is a swing state that Biden won by only 2.8%, and many experts are predicting 2022 to be a bad year for Democrats. (A lot can happen between now and November, though.)

But this time, and for the rest of the decade, the voters will decide. And that’s what democracy is all about.

Maps in some other swing states are still undetermined, with a few hopeful (and a few discouraging) signs.

Ohio also passed an anti-gerrymandering ballot proposition in 2018, with an even bigger majority than in Michigan: 75%-25%. However, the legislature still had a role in drawing the new map for congressional districts, which gives Republicans an even bigger advantage than they had in the previous decade. The Ohio Supreme Court is considering whether or not they will get away with it.

Pennsylvania is another swing state whose map is still undecided. The Republican legislature has submitted a map that favors the GOP, but it still needs the approval of Democratic governor Tom Wolf.

Wisconsin has been one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, another state where Democratic votes often lead to substantial Republican majorities in the legislature and in Congress. In 2018, for example, Republicans lost the governorship and other statewide offices, but still held on to 63 of 99 seats in the Assembly.

Wisconsin looks likely to remain rigged: The gerrymandered Republican legislature and the Democratic governor couldn’t agree on a map, kicking the decision to the state Supreme Court. The court hasn’t yet produced a final map, but has committed itself to a minimum-change model that ignores partisan results, essentially maintaining the gerrymandered 2010-census map.

You can find a state-by-state analysis of the redistricting process at 538.

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  • charlesroth2016  On January 3, 2022 at 9:55 am

    I was an early volunteer with in Michigan — the group that put together the anti-gerrymandering MI 2018 prop 2 — and we’re still pinching ourselves that this has all finally come to pass.

    A few additional notes that may be of interest:
    1. The ballot petition was a (Michigan) constitutional amendment — not just a law — thus preventing the legislature from rewriting it after the fact.
    2. An army of 4000+ UNPAID volunteers gathered 400,000+ petition signatures. This is only the 2nd time in ~50 years where this (unpaid) has worked.
    3. In 2018, the Democratic candidate for governor (Gretchen Whitmer) won with 53% of the vote. Prop 2 passed with 61%! So it wasn’t just Democrats voting for it.
    4. There’s a great video that tells the story of the campaigns in Michigan and Wisconsin, that I cannot recommend strongly enough:
    5. In particular, WE HAD NO MONEY to speak of. Amazing things were done with no budget but many volunteers. Only late in the game did the Democratic national committee step in, once they saw we had a chance at succeeding, and most of that $$ went into TV ads.
    6. If you are in Michigan, I strongly recommend NOT signing the current “Secure MI Vote” petition — since the GOP failed to stop prop 2, they are trying to make it harder to vote — and thru a weird provision in the Michigan constitution, if they get enough signatures, the legislature can adopt it WITHOUT the governor’s approval.

    Personally, being active in the campaign was not just exciting, but helped me stay sane thru the Trump years. I went door to door to get signatures (frequently dressed as Uncle Sam, since I already have the white beard!), but also helped build technical infrastructure to support the petition gathering. (I’m a software guy.)

    Final point being: whoever/whereever you are — you can do this to. Some progressive campaign needs your skills & energy. Go find it.

    • weeklysift  On January 5, 2022 at 9:10 am

      Thanks for providing your on-the-ground insight — and for helping democracy revive.

  • charlesroth2016  On January 3, 2022 at 10:06 am

    On a lighter note… on election day 2018, I stood outside a polling place, dressed as Uncle Sam, with a set of signs that I had posted along the walkway:

    District lines

    Should not meander

    Vote yes “2” end

    The gerrymander

    (not exactly) Burmashave

    • Josh  On January 3, 2022 at 10:25 am

      That’s brilliant – especially the signs. Thank you for all your hard work, a genuine example of regular people bringing about tangible change in the system.

  • joeirvin  On January 3, 2022 at 3:14 pm

    Let’s remember that the authors of the Constitution regarded democracy as mob rule. So they constructed something else. See this analysis is today’s NYT:

  • ramseyman  On January 16, 2022 at 4:02 pm

    Gerrymandering has been going on in the U.S. for a very long time. You’re equating it with obstruction of democracy. I agree that full enfranchisement is what government of the people is all about. But to my knowledge the courts through all that history have consistently upheld gerrymandering as an allowable political tool. The one exception that I am aware of was here in Virginia when our supreme court found that gerrymandering had been used to disenfranchise racial minorities, rather than specifically a political party. That gerrymandering was deemed a civil rights violation, and its correction in the redrawing of our voting districts happened to give us our first Democrat legislative majorities in many years, and as a result many legislative course corrections.


  • By Guarantees | The Weekly Sift on January 3, 2022 at 10:14 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “Democracy Returns to Michigan“. […]

  • By Notes on the midterm elections | The Weekly Sift on November 14, 2022 at 9:01 am

    […] matters. For years, voters in Michigan have voted for Democratic candidates for the legislature, only to see Republicans keep control. But in 2018, Michigan voters reestablished democracy in their state by overwhelmingly passing […]

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