GOP scores big in most counties in Michigan |

TRAVERSE CITY — Last November, Michigan Democrats scored huge victories as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer easily won re-election and her party took control of the Senate and House.

But, while Whitmer and fellow Democrats scored big in state level races, that didn’t happen at the county level, where local politicians still redraw political boundaries.

Of the 619 county commissioners elected in Michigan last year, 444 (72 percent) were Republicans — an increase of five from 2020, according to a Bridge Michigan analysis of county commissioner lists compiled by the Michigan Association of Counties.

Grand Traverse County now has six Republicans and three Democrats — the most Democrats the county has ever had — on the county commission. The county board has never had a Democratic majority and, until a few years ago, having a Democrat on the board was a rarity, according to county records.

That changed when commissioners Betsy Coffia and Bryce Hundley were elected to Districts 1 and 2, respectively, on the seven — member board. They both served until this year, when Coffia was elected to the state Legislature and Hundley was ousted by primary challenger Ashlea Walters, who won in the November election.

Redistricting took place after the 2020 census and added two more seats to the board, bringing the total to nine.

The GTC board had 15 members from 1971 through 1982, when the census lowered the number to nine. It stayed at nine for several years, until the 2010 census lowered it to seven members.

In Leelanau County, that board of commissioners made history in August when it seated a Democratic majority for the first time.

The board flipped parties after Lois Bahle defeated 14-year board veteran William Bunek in a special recall election that took place in May.

Bunek was recalled after his efforts to zero out an Early Childhood Services millage passed by voters in 2019. Then, just six months later, Bahle was unseated from her District 3 win by Republican Doug Rexroat in the November election. But District 1 incumbent Rick Robbins lost his seat to Democrat Jamie Kramer, who kept the board blue.

Statewide, the number of Republican commissioners increased in 22 counties. And 35 counties now have all—Republican commissions, up from 31 in 2020.

In contrast, Democratic commissioners increased their numbers in 11 counties and just three — Wayne, Washtenaw and Marquette — are now led entirely by Democrats, the same number as in 2020 (although it was Gogebic, Marquette and Washtenaw counties then).

Unlike state legislators, whose new boundaries were drawn in 2021 by an independent bipartisan citizens commission, county commissioners ran in districts that are still designed and approved by local partisan officials.

Under a 1966 state law, county commission boundaries are approved by a local redistricting commission composed of three elected officials — the county clerk, treasurer and prosecutor — along with leaders of the county Republican and Democratic parties.

In Grand Traverse County, the apportionment commission was made up of four Republicans and one Democrat, although residents were allowed to submit maps. The chosen map was drawn by Harold Lassers, a Democrat.

Removing politicians from the drawing of legislative boundaries was the impetus for state voters’ approval in 2018 of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission for state and congressional races. This past November was the first election based on the redrawn maps.

Making sure the maps did not give any party a political advantage was a top priority of the MICRC. However, at the county level, that’s the last of eight guiding principles, which are listed in descending order of importance.

Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the organization behind the 2018 statewide redistricting ballot proposal, said the group has heard complaints of gerrymandering at the local level. She said her group would be willing to assist any county that wants to adopt an independent model like the MICRC.

“If there are voters that want to end county—level gerrymandering, VNP would be glad to help in order to give power back to the people,” Wang said.

Other factors at play

To be sure, political gerrymandering does not totally explain the high volume of Republicans elected to county commissions.

Broad geographic stretches of Michigan have become more conservative and more heavily Republican, especially in rural regions, while Democratic voters tend to dominate heavily populated urban areas. That explains how Whitmer could win easily in the governor’s race even as Tudor Dixon, her Republican challenger, captured 66 of Michigan’s 83 counties.

Consider Bay and Alger counties: In both counties, Democrats controlled the redistricting process because they held a majority of county political positions, but the counties’ conservative voters flipped both commissions to Republicans in November.

In Bay County, a 6-1 Democratic majority became a 4-3 Republican body. Alger, in the Upper Peninsula, went from four Democrats and an Independent to four Republicans and a Democrat.

But in other places, partisan interests may have been at play.

In GOP-dominated St. Joseph County, the Republican-led redistricting commission increased the number of seats on the county commission from five to seven. That increased a 5-0 Republican commission to a 7-0 Republican commission in November.

Redistricting also diluted the ability of a Democrat to win by splitting in half the town of Three Rivers south of Kalamazoo, which has voted more Democratic in recent years.

“It was definitely divided in a way where it was much less likely for a Democrat to get elected” to the county commission, said Carol Higgins, chairperson of the Democratic Party of St. Joseph County.

Only one Democrat ran for any commission seat in that county — in the second district, which included half of Three Rivers — and lost.

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