Democratic candidates for the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate won a majority of the vote this year, leading to their party gaining control of both legislative houses. That may seem like a natural outcome, but it wasn’t the case in previous elections.
While Democrats also won majority votes in 2018 and 2020, Republicans won majorities in the Legislature. The difference this time: Candidates ran in new districts drawn up by a Citizens’ Commission, rather than ones designed by Republican lawmakers to keep their party in power.
“Michigan has gone from some of the most heavily manipulated maps to some of the most beautiful maps in the country, and now we have a perfect match between the votes voters cast and the officers elected to office,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians. Her group led a successful ballot initiative in 2018 that changed the way Michigan’s legislative districts are drawn.
Analysis of Associated Press election data shows that Michigan’s new legislative districts diminished the built-in advantage Republicans had enjoyed over the past decade. It shows that gerrymandering – or the lack thereof – can affect the balance of power in lawmakers and ultimately the policies they pursue.
The inauguration of Michigan’s new legislative districts this year coincided with a ballot measure aimed at enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution. The abortion measure passed by nearly 57% of the vote, raising an issue that gave Democrats an advantage in some competitive districts.
cancellation “was definitely a factor in my race and most likely every race in the state,” said Republican House Speaker Pro Tem Pamela Hornberger, whose loss of about 300 votes in a Senate race was the closest nationwide.
Recently re-elected Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is already talking about working with Michigan’s new Democratic majority to completely repeal a 1931 law banning abortion and codify same-sex marriage rights — two issues that received little traction in the Republican-led legislature.
The Michigan law change was part of a strong showing by Democrats at the state level in this year’s midterm election. Victories in legislative or gubernatorial elections also gave them full control of government in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Minnesota.
Michigan isn’t the only state with a history of partisan maneuvers, in which the party in charge pulls districts to its advantage — packing voters from the other party into select districts and spreading others across multiple districts to reduce their influence. Gerrymandering has greatly increased in this latest redistributive cycle among both Republicans and Democrats.
Unlike in Michigan, voters in about half of the states do not have the opportunity to bring issues to a vote through citizens’ initiatives. Therefore, similar district redistribution initiatives cannot be carried out in Democrat-dominated Maryland or used to control the power of Republican-led legislatures in North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin, where all party cards have faced lawsuits.
For the past decade, Michigan’s general election has been held under plans enacted in 2011 by a Republican-led legislature and governor. According to an earlier AP analysis, which used a mathematical formula to illustrate potential instances of gerrymandering, these counties gave Republican candidates one of the biggest advantages in the country. This formula shows that the maps used in the 2022 election were politically close to neutral.
In 2018 and 2020, Democratic candidates received a slim majority of the total votes in the state House of Representatives, but Republicans won a 58-52 majority in the House of Representatives each year. Democrats also received more votes for the Michigan Senate in the most recent election in 2018, but Republicans won a 22-16 majority under the cards they drew.
A constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2018 established the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission and stripped lawmakers of their responsibility for redistribution. The measure had to be reviewed by a 13-strong panel chosen at random from a pool of applicants “partisan fairness” as one of several criteria for drawing maps. The process began with the 2020 census.
Without the new districts, Macomb County Commissioner Veronica Klinefelt, a Democrat, said she probably wouldn’t have run for the Senate. But she jumped at the chance when a new map combined portions of two previous boroughs to create a new borough in Detroit’s north metropolitan area. Klinefelt defeated a Republican incumbent trying to represent the new district.
“The opportunity to flip the Senate for the first time in 38 years was something I couldn’t just walk away from.” said Klinefelt.
Hornberger’s pursuit of a newly created Senate district pitted her against Democratic Representative Kevin Hertel. Like other Michigan races in this election, her contest drew unprecedented spending from Democrats trying to seize control of the chamber. Democrats attacked what Hornberger described as a wrong vote against a child abuse reporting bill she later reversed, while Republicans attacked Hertel over an unpaid tax bill from years ago.
Hornberger said she was disgusted by the tone of the campaign.
“It just goes to show you how absolutely crucial it is to have that power in Lansing, whether Democrat or Republican.” she said, later adding: “and the amount of money we’re going to spend and the horrible things we’re going to do to each other to get it.”
Nevertheless, Hornberger considers the maps drawn up by the Citizens’ Commission to be fair.
Analysis performed for the commission when the cards were adopted projected that if Democrats received 52.3% of the vote, they would win a 20-to-18 Senate majority and a 57-to-53 House majority would.
The actual results followed this ratio almost exactly. Democratic parliamentary candidates received nearly 51% of the statewide vote. Democrats won a 20-18 majority in the Senate and a 56-54 majority in the House of Representatives.
“Honestly, I think we did a pretty decent job,” said Dustin Witjes, a Democratic commissioner.
Republican commissioner Douglas Clark and bipartisan commissioner Rebecca Szetela also said they were pleased that the percentage of seats won by each party matched so closely the percentage of votes they received.
“For me, a fair card is a card that reflects the will of the voters” said Szetela.
Partisan balance can be achieved through a mix of biased districts that favor Democrats and Republicans, or districts that exhibit a more bipartisan voter split. The commissioners said creating more competitive districts isn’t their goal, but in some cases it’s a by-product.
While the number of Senate elections won by less than 10 percentage points remained the same from 2018 to 2022, the number of close house elections rose from 14 in the previous two elections to 20 this year.
“Depending on the issues of the election and depending on the candidates, some of these districts can go either way — they can go Republican or Democratic.” said Clark. “In that case, more of them became Democrats in this election. So I think we have to accept those results – that’s what people wanted.”
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