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Michigan Legislature: Redistricting paves way for Democrats to seize control

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Michigan Democrats will have control of the state Senate for first time in nearly 40 years. (Shutterstock)
  • Democrats’ victory in legislative races has roots in gerrymandering reform approved in 2018
  • In 2018, similar turnout resulted in GOP majorities in the House and Senate districts drawn by Republicans
  • Tuesday, after independent redistricting, similar turnout resulted in Democratic control

In 2018, Gretchen Whitmer won the governor’s office by just over 400,000 votes and 9 percentage points.

When she took office, she was welcomed by a Legislature that was elected by the same voters but controlled by Republicans, 19-17 in the Senate and 58-52 in the House.

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On Tuesday, Whitmer was reelected, again by 400,000 votes. But come January, she’ll welcome a narrow Democratic majority in the House and a 20-18 majority.

Related:

What happened? 

Turnout soared this year to another record and many Democrats were motivated by Proposal 3, which sought to protect abortion rights. 

But Democrats’ legislative win Tuesday began in 2018, when voters overwhelmingly backed redistricting reform. 

No longer would the party in power — Republicans for decades — draw the lines that had made Michigan’s pro-GOP gerrymandering among the worst in the country.

Instead, a bipartisan committee of citizens would do so, approving sweeping changes last December that paid little heed to incumbents and their partisan affiliation.

The result was the Democratic takeover of the state Legislature.

Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist with the Grassroots Midwest firm in Lansing, had predicted Democrats could take advantage of the new political boundaries and flip both chambers if Whitmer managed to win by more than 8 percentage points.

She did — and Democrats did.

"There's no guarantee if she gets north of 8, but to make that even possible, she's got to get there," he said a week before the election. Whitmer won by that margin four years ago yet Republicans still retained majorities in the Legislature, but, Hemond said. those were "very different maps."

Using different standards than legislators had in the past, when they were trying to strengthen the dominant party’s position, the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission was bound to seven standards adopted by voters, one of which was to make partisan fairness among its top concerns.

Unlike prior redistricting attempts which used a set of court-ordered standards, the new commission used different guidelines, like grouping “communities of interest.” It was not tied to recommendations like keeping districts, as best as possible,

But those changes played a role in Tuesday’s historic wins for Democrats — holding the governor’s office and effectively controlling both chambers of the Michigan Legislature.

In the end, the redistricting panel approved maps that, based on previous voting patterns, would produce a 20-18 Democratic majority in the Senate, a 57-53 Democratic majority in the House and a 7-6 Democratic majority among the state’s congressional delegation.

"This is what happens when you get rid of gerrymandering. The people who get the most votes win. Democracy wins," Anthony Eid, a member of the commission wrote in a tweet.

And, based on unofficial, incomplete results, the Senate is now a 20-18 lead, the House is 56-54 Democratic majority and Democrats have a 7-6 edge in congressional delegation 

The changes became apparent in metro Detroit and elsewhere, where Democratic strongholds were no longer stuck in overwhelmingly Republican districts — and where overwhelmingly Democratic areas were spread over wider areas.

Consider:

  • In the new 11th Senate seat in Midland and Bay counties, Democrat Kristen MacDonald Rivet beat Republican Annette Glenn, a House member from the region. The new district leans Democrat, including Democratic-leaning Bay City and “purple” Midland. But the previous legislative map had those cities split into three separate Republican-dominated districts.
  • In Kent County, Republicans had been elected to both Senate seats in 2018. Democrats on Tuesday won both redrawn districts.
  • In Macomb and Oakland counties, Democrats now control 17 House seats, up from 13, with a number of those districts including parts of Democratic-heavy Detroit. Before the changes, no Detroit district crossed 8 Mile Road into those counties.
  • In Congress, the revamped 3rd Congressional seat in west Michigan was won by Democrat Hillary Scholten, the first Democrat in the region in nearly 50 years.

The dramatic changes helped blunt any talk in Michigan or nationwide of a “red wave” and will usher in a new era of governing in the state.

Democrats had long railed at the maps Republicans had enacted, saying they willfully diluted the votes of Democrats.

For instance, in 2016, when President Donald Trump won the state, Democratic House candidates got slightly more votes than Republicans. But Republicans won 63 of the 110 seats.

In 2017, the League of Women Voters challenged the maps in federal court and a U.S. Court of Appeals panel agreed the maps violated the Constitution, but the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled, in April 2019, that federal courts should play no role in deciding gerrymandering claims.

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By then, though, voters had approved, with over 61 percent of the vote, the creation of the redistricting commission that would be composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents.

After months of meetings, lawsuits, citizen comments and the creation of dozens of maps, the 13-member panel approved three maps last December. 

On Tuesday, they played a role in the historic change in the makeup of state government.

Jonathan Oosting contributed

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