Michigan Dems to lose majority for months; quick special elections unlikely
- Michigan House Speaker Joe Tate wants to fill vacant seats quickly but concedes a Feb. 27 general election is not ‘feasible’
- Democrats lost their majority voting power last week when two members won mayoral elections
- Election clerks anticipate possible May special election but are hoping Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will wait until August instead
LANSING — A push to fill vacant Michigan House seats by late February is not realistic, Speaker Joe Tate said Tuesday, indicating Democrats are bracing to lose their majority voting power for longer than originally anticipated.
Democrats are expected to eventually win back both seats made vacant when state Reps. Kevin Coleman and Lori Stone last week won mayoral elections in Westland and Warren, respectively.
Party leaders had hoped to hold a special election primary in early January to set up a general election coinciding with the Feb. 27 presidential primary. But "I don't see that as feasible," Tate told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday, indicating that it’s "highly probable" that the 54-54 tie in the state House will last beyond February.
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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will make the final call on scheduling special elections, a decision made more complicated because Stone had not formally resigned as of Tuesday morning, when the House adjourned for the year.
The governor cannot call for a special election until the seat is officially vacant, and her office on Tuesday declined to say when she will do so. A spokesperson for House Democrats said Stone is in contact with the clerk's office and is expected to submit her resignation notice in short order.
Another complicating factor: New voting rules added to the Michigan Constitution through ballot measures in 2018 and 2022 make quick elections a challenge because officials are now required to provide more time for absentee voting and nine days of early in-person voting, among other things.
Those new rules are already creating higher costs and a “real employee burnout factor” for election workers, said Westland City Clerk Richard LeBlanc, who told Bridge he worked 13-hour days to comply with early voting rules ahead of last week’s mayoral election.
LeBlanc said he wants Whitmer to use existing election dates to fill the vacant House seats by holding the primary on the Feb. 27 presidential primary and the general election to coincide with another statewide primary on Aug. 6.
That would put Michigan Democrats without majority voting power in the House for most of next year, limiting their ability to pass partisan legislation in what was set to be their first two-year sessions with full control in four decades.
LeBlanc, a Democrat and former state lawmaker himself, said he understands the desire of Lansing officials to fill the seats quickly but is concerned that his staff would be overwhelmed if they are required to administer more than the three elections already set for next year, including the Nov. 5 general election.
"I'm really hoping that folks are willing to say, look, we'll make governance happen" in Lansing by working across the aisle and showing a "willingness to put the brakes on a little bit on the Democratic agenda and work for a Michigan agenda," Leblanc said.
Macomb County Clerk Anthony Forlini told Bridge he expects Whitmer to call for a special primary in February, but then add a May general election date to fill the vacant House seats, including the opening in Warren, the state’s third-largest city.
That would be "unfortunate because it puts a lot of burden on the local clerk" who will already administer three major elections next year, Forlini said. "It's like they forget that there's human beings behind these elections."
Forlini, a Republican who also previously served in the state House, said the even split in the state House provides “a great time to do some bipartisan work.”
Tate, for his part, said Tuesday morning that legislative leaders are still having discussions with Whitmer and her office about a "spring timeframe" for special elections to fill the vacant House seats.
But he acknowledged Democrats will enter 2024 with a new eye toward "bipartisan work."
"We'll have to see how the House Republicans (respond) — their willingness to work together," Tate said. "But, you know, I'm optimistic that we can get there."
House Minority Leader Matt Hall, R-Richland Township, has argued the temporary 54-54 tie in the state House should usher in a new era of "shared power" in Lansing.
He tried to introduce a resolution to that effect on Tuesday but said Tate refused to allow its introduction.
“The balance of power in the House of Representatives is a call to bipartisanship, and Michigan legislators on both sides of the aisle should answer the call and find common ground,” Hall said in a statement. “ We should start by crafting a bipartisan power-sharing agreement, and we can work together to get results for our state.”
There hasn't been a shared power agreement of that kind in the Michigan Legislature since 1993-94, when House members elected Republican and Democratic co-speakers to preside over an even split in the lower chamber.
Tate already shot down that idea last week, however, noting standing rules adopted in January would only require a leadership change if there was a 55-55 tie in a fully-seated state House.
"We're not in shared power," Tate told reporters last week. "Democrats still control the gavel … You can strike 'share' from it because we'll still continue to do the work."
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