November 14, 2014
It’s been widely noted that Michigan had poor voter turnout in last week’s general election – the lowest vote count since 1998. But largely overlooked was how closely divided the electorate was between Republicans and Democrats.
Set aside the top of the ticket for the moment. Our U.S. Senate and gubernatorial campaigns were marked by exhaustive media coverage, boatloads of money and scads of advertising. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder won reelection by four percentage points. Democratic Senator-elect Gary Peters won by more than 13 percentage points. Clearly, there were plenty of ticket-splitters and there was no partisan “wave” in our headline statewide campaigns.
That is precisely why political operatives and analysts don’t look at the top of the ticket to assess the base partisan turnout. Those candidates are thoroughly exposed to the electorate and independents and ticket-splitters vote for the candidates they prefer, not necessarily the party.
The better indicator of underlying partisan preference is the group of seats on statewide education governing boards: The State Board of Education, University of Michigan Regents, Michigan State University Trustees and Wayne State University Governors. With few exceptions, the candidates for those offices are unknown to most voters. That is where voters follow their underlying party preference.
Democrats swept the education boards easily in 2006, 2008 and 2012 with Jennifer Granholm, then Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. They also won majorities in the Michigan House in 2006 and 2008, the U.S. House delegation in 2008, and they came within some 500 votes of tying the Michigan Senate in 2006.
The Republicans, with Rick Snyder at the top of the ticket and a TEA Party revolt against Obamacare in the field, won all eight education seats in 2010, with only one close contest. Republicans also reclaimed majorities in the Michigan House and Senate and our U.S. House delegation that year – which they haven’t relinquished since.
Things went differently in the contests for the education boards this year. Democrats won seven of the eight seats, losing one seat on the MSU Board of Trustees. But the margins between winning and losing were razor thin in every case. The greatest margin between the winning second-place Democrat and the losing third-place Republican was 0.55% of the vote in the State Board of Education contest. The narrowest margin was 0.09% for U-M Regent – less than 5,000 votes out of more than 5,478,000 votes cast.
Despite what the results suggest, partisan division was skin-tight in legislative voting as well. Across the state, Democrats took the greater number of votes for Michigan House and U.S. House – by 1.3% and 1.7%, respectively. Republicans won the majority of Michigan Senate votes by 1.5%.
So, how do we end up with the legislative representation we have? That’s the power of the gerrymander. As old Joe Stalin observed, it’s less important who votes than who counts the votes. Or, in our contemporary situation, how the votes are grouped to be counted.
When you distill it to a single metric – the percentage of each legislative delegation won by the party, divided by its percentage of the vote – the results are stunning. A Republican vote for Michigan House was worth 1.36 times as much representation as a Democratic vote. A Republican vote for Michigan Senate was worth 2.39 times as much representation as a Democratic vote. A Republican vote for U.S. House was worth 1.84 times as much representation as a Democratic vote.
Through the magic of drawing advantageous district lines, a pure toss-up state has been turned into a locked-down Red State government. I guess you have to take your hat off to the mechanics in the back room that pulled that off. But this rigged election outcome bears no resemblance to democracy. The principle of one person, one vote has been used for toilet paper.
It doesn’t take much insight to understand the burning Republican desire to implement the Reince Priebus plan for the Electoral College. Even battered by the deafening roar of money-speech emanating from the Koch Machine, Michigan’s 2016 electorate will lean more Democratic than the 2014 version. Republicans are on a six-election presidential losing streak in this state. When you consider who can survive the purifying fires of Republican presidential primaries, it’s highly unlikely the party’s standard-bearer will have much appeal to those centrists and ticket-splitters who voted for Gary Peters.
It appears that Michigan Republicans have conceded that they can’t win the big prize under the long-standing rules of the game, so they have to change the rules. Did that come from the Founding Fathers?