Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Michigan Gerrymander: the Oakland County Commission

Since a few people seemed surprised by the sheer impact of the GOP gerrymander on the 2014 election results in my post yesterday on the election results, I reckoned I'd share a few other numbers just to make it clear that the fix wasn't just in for our state legislature. The fix was in everywhere from my county commission to the Congressional delegation we're sending to Washington, DC.

Let's start locally with the Oakland County Commission, where the Republican incumbents at the state level rewrote county redistricting law in 2011 to ensure that the GOP had sole control over Oakland County Commission redistricting. The result was a gerrymander that is truly breathtaking in its audacity and success. What could be useful campaigns and elections to determine the future and direction of Oakland County have been reduced to hollow shams, nothing more than a bit of electoral kabuki to give the media something to fill space.

Before we proceed, a quick reminder: the gerrymander works by packing as many of the losing party's voters into as few districts as possible and by spreading the winning party's voters across districts to provide safe but comfortable margins of victory in as many districts as possible. Beyond the immediate impact on the voting electorate in each district, it also undermines our options as voters by severely discouraging good candidates from the minority party from running at all. Gerrymanders tend to make themselves visible by weirdly shaped districts on a map, but not every gerrymander is as visually evident as the bizarre-looking 11th Congressional District in Oakland County. The easiest way to spot a gerrymander is by looking at its results.

Oakland County Commission countywide vote count:

  • Democratic candidates, 191,842 (46.4%)
  • Republican candidates, 215,472 (52.1%)
  • Other, 6,580 (1.6%)

It wasn't a great day for Democrats in Oakland County, which has in recent years become a very close swing county with a lot of voters willing to split their ticket. In 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer lost Oakland County to Republican Rick Snyder by 56,522 votes, nearly half of the 129,547 statewide margin of victory. But Democratic US Senate candidate Gary Peters -- who comes from Oakland County -- won the county over Republican Terri Lynn-Land by 66,741 votes on Tuesday. So there were more than 100,000 ticket-splitting voters up for grabs.

The Democrats lost the total county commission vote by 23,630 votes (5.7%). In the abstract that might translate to an 11-10 Republican majority. In gerrymandered Oakland County that translates to a 14-7 Republican majority. That 14-7 count was essentially cemented in place by the gerrymander created by the Republican Party in 2011, which created 14 very safe Republican districts by packing as many Democratic votes as possible into just seven districts.

How safe are the Oakland County Commission seats? The average margin of victory in all races this year was 34.3%. The closest race was in the 5th district where John A. Scott (R - 11,142 votes, 57.9%) beat Markus Tincher (D - 8,026 votes, 41.8%) by 3,116 votes, a 16.2% margin of victory. The average Republican margin of victory in 2014 was 28.1%. The average Democratic margin of victory was an even more astonishing 46.7%. 

The county commission results for 2012 are a bit trickier to sort out because five candidates (four Republicans, one Democrat) ran unopposed. The 2012 election resulted in the exact same 14-7 margin in county commission seats. The top two Democratic candidates in 2012 (Obama and Stabenow) won Oakland County by an average of 83,763 votes while the top two Democratic candidates in 2014 (Schauer and Peters) only managed an average margin of 5,109 in Oakland County. It's safe to say that the overall electorate tended somewhere around 50,000 to 100,000 votes more Democratic. That overall Democratic surge narrowed the margins of Republican victories, but it obviously had zero impact on the final outcome. 

Kudos to both parties for at least giving folks somebody to vote for in every district this year, I guess. I have great respect for those candidates of both parties who fought an essentially hopeless uphill battle. Most of them did it without real hope of victory for their seat, but to support the principles and values they believe in. That's an admirable undertaking.

But as far as the Oakland County Commission goes, they're playing in a rigged game.


  1. Good grief...
    Thanks for the explanation, distasteful though it is.
    In fact,it's more than distasteful because it gives merit to those who feel it isn't worth the effort to vote.
    But your explanations always clarify so, thanks!

  2. Believe me, I hate giving merit to that suggestion. I guess I should add that there are always non-gerrymandered races and issues on the ballot, too. So your vote does really matter in some places. And, you know, every now and then one of these gerrymandered seats does flip for a cycle, usually because the incumbent has done something truly egregious.

    But, yeah, what we have right now in Michigan is a system in which your vote has been completely marginalized. A democracy that was fought for with blood is being stolen from us with legal fine print and shady back-room deals.

    What aggravates me the most is that very few people seem to care.