Ballot politics

Some of Michigan’s biggest political maneuvers have been through the ballot. Will that trend continue?

Inside Michigan’s state capitol

I don’t like Tweeting and I don’t like following Tweets. But the other day, I came across an interesting one:

I have this impression, as a voter, that most of Michigan’s political movement-building is through ballot initiatives rather than candidates or parties. Is that a hot take?

My reply: Yes, it’s hot — but probably accurate, nonetheless. My question is: Will ballot politics continue?

Michiganders have been hot to pass a bunch of laws by enshrining them in the state constitution via ballot measure. The policies vary, but include marijuana legalization, an increased minimum wage and paid sick leave (both stymied by a Republican legislature but potentially reinstituted correctly soon), expanded voting rights, an end to gerrymandering, and maybe eventually the right to an abortion. Most of these measures come out of a backlash to a Michigan state legislature that has been significantly gerrymandered, giving Republicans a greater majority than they’d otherwise have. But with gerrymandering now effectively gone in Michigan, passing policies by ballot measure may eventually fall out of favor — but I doubt it.

For more than a decade, the Michigan state house and state senate have been completely dominated by Republicans. It wasn’t just because Republicans outcompeted Democrats in the state. They also bent the rules in their favor. After the 2010 Census came out, Republicans gave themselves four extra seats in the state House, one in the state Senate, and gave themselves an advantage in already-Republican leaning districts, according to Bridge Michigan reporting. In a purple state like Michigan, these changes make all the difference.

Even though the past few years have seen a Democratic governor in charge, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has nonetheless often been halted by a Republican-dominated state legislature. As has become almost inevitable due to the nationalization of our politics and the rise of partisanship, hyper-polarization has created gridlock and contention between the red state legislature and blue governor. The result has been vetoes. Governor Whitmer has vetoed 30.7 bills per year while she’s been in office — more than any governor since 1953. Legislation often dies in committee, too, never getting a vote to reach the governor’s desk. Bills around criminal justice reform, reforming control over Michigan’s electrical utilities, and a bill that would allow more oversight over campaign finance spending have all been stalled.

Thus, ballot politics has been what’s needed for the Michigan public to assert their demands and overcome a conservative leaning legislature in a (currently) slightly liberal-leaning state. Whitmer, like other Democrats across the country, won a majority of voters — most all of them concentrated in Michigan’s biggest cities — but she still can’t pass as much as she’d like.

A Different Future?

The real question is: will anything change? The answer: maybe. After (un-ironically) a passed ballot initiative created an independent redistricting commission to replace that of Michigan representatives (read: Republicans), Democrats will have a fairer shot, and a good chance to exert more control. Michigan’s state senate specifically may flip, creating an opportunity for Democrats to control some of the state legislature and push more policies up the chain of command to the governor’s desk.

That’s all to say that we’ll know more in two weeks after the August primary, and even more in November, when the dust settles, and newly elected officials take office. Still, without control of both chambers of government and the governor’s mansion, neither party will be able to pass legislation as they desire. As such, the majority of Michiganders will have to pass new policies on their own, by doing the work of collecting signatures and enshrining new language into the state constitution. Electing officials likely won’t be enough.



Journalist, producer, and blogger

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