Why This Ballot Initiative Could Be A Boon For Michigan Democrats

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) CREDIT: CARLOS OSORIO, AP
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) CREDIT: CARLOS OSORIO, AP

An important but little-discussed aspect of American elections is the built-in advantage that Republicans have in the nation’s gubernatorial races.

The reason why is simple. Turnout is far higher in years when there’s a presidential election, and that boost in turnout is predominantly reflected in minorities and young people, constituencies that tend to vote Democratic. Conversely, turnout is typically over 20 points lower during midterm elections, with far fewer minorities and young people going to the polls. But just nine states have gubernatorial elections that exclusively coincide with presidential votes, whereas 34 states vote for governor during midterm elections. (Five states vote in odd-numbered years and the remaining two elect their governor every two years.)

This bias towards midterm elections is a contributing reason why swing states that twice voted for President Obama, such as Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio, also elected Republicans during the last two gubernatorial races.

But one of those purple states could soon shift its gubernatorial elections to presidential years: Michigan.

According to the Detroit Free Press, an unidentified group of Democrats and independents are considering a ballot initiative to move gubernatorial races by two years so as to line up with presidential elections. Other statewide races, such as those for attorney general and secretary of state, would also be moved. If the initiative comes together and is passed by voters this year, the elections could shift as soon as 2020.


Such a move could pay major dividends for Michigan Democrats, who are currently shut out of statewide offices. The Mitten State has gone blue every presidential election since 1988, yet five of the seven midterm votes since then have elected Republican governors.

Good government groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause are already praising the idea because it would result in more Michiganders casting a gubernatorial ballot. During the last presidential election in 2012, 65.4 percent of eligible voters in the state cast a ballot, while just 43.2 percent did so two years later when the governor’s race was decided.

Early poll numbers on the matter look promising for reformers. A January EPIC-MRA poll found that 60 percent of respondents supported holding gubernatorial and presidential elections simultaneously, while 32 percent were opposed.

Proponents of the initiative have until July to gather the 252,523 signatures required to make the November ballot. If it passes, the winner of the 2018 gubernatorial election would serve a two (rather than four) year term before standing for election again in 2020.