Most May elections in Michigan tend to be subdued affairs. With only school board races (as well as community college candidates) on the ballot, most voters tend to stay away from the polls on the first Tuesday of May. However, the election on May 4, 2010 might be a more interesting affair, largely because the City of Grand Rapids has a proposed income tax increase going before the voters. The city proposes to increase the city’s income tax for a five-year period between 2010 and 2015 for both residents and non-residents who work in Grand Rapids. The rate on residents would increase from 1.3% to 1.5%, while non-residents would see their rate increase from .65% to .75%.
Regardless of the merits of the tax increase (personal opinion moment: while local income taxes have an adverse impact on job sprawl and residential population, I can’t see many other ways for the City to balance its budget after seeing its share of revenue from the state dwindle over the past seven years-pb), what is the likely voting patterns that supporters and opponents of the measure can expect on May 4? In the past five May elections voters have cast ballots on three millage measures: two in 2007; one for GR Community College and another for the Rapid Bus System, and one in 2009 again for the Rapid. Voting returns from the past five May elections (2005-2009) and two August ballot measures (August 2004 Zoo millage and August 2008 Jail millage) that serve as a comparison indicator, can provide some clues.
Over the past five years, the number of registered voters has increased steadily, largely due to strong voter registration efforts by allies of the Democratic Party. In August 2004 there were 115,502 registered voters and in September 2009 there were 126,676, an increase of about 10% at a time when the Grand Rapids’ population declined slightly (according to US Census figures from the 2008 American Community Survey). The increase in registered voters did not necessarily result in an increase in voters in the May elections, as shown by Table 1 below.
Table 1: Election Turnout, 2004-2009
In May elections, turnout has ranged from a low of 5.2% in 2006 to a high of 12.5% in2009 when a millage to expand The Rapid system drew voters to the polls. Yet even the high turnout in May 2009 barely surpassed the primary turnout in August 2008 of 12% in an election where there was almost nothing on the ballot for interested voters to bother with. In contrast, the controversial zoo millage on the August 2004 ballot drew more than a quarter of registered voters to the polls, a figure surpassed only by the August 2002 primary turnout rate of 41%.
Regions of Grand Rapids
Yet examining the overall turnout rates hides larger voting trends occurring within the city of Grand Rapids. Map 1 shows the City of Grand Rapids broken down into ten distinct regions.
Map 1: Regions of Grand Rapids
Many of these regions represent different epochs of urban/suburban development in metropolitan
Grand Rapids. While the city of Grand Rapids was founded in 1837, the city rapidly expanded until 1857, at which time it covered much of the Western Core, the City Core, the Urban Core and the Hispanic Gateway portions of the city. Grand Rapids expanded its boundaries during the era of streetcar suburbs that occurred between the 1890s and the early 1920s, and occurred in the western, northern, southern portions of the city. Finally, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the city annexed suburban areas to the west, north and south of its boundaries, while the suburban community of Kentwood (along with other suburban communities like Walker and Wyoming) was established in 1967 with a political cultural similar to the southern suburbs of Grand Rapids.
While these regions owe much to their physical form, they have also been shaped by social and political identity. The southern portion of the city was heavily influenced by the initial wave of New England and New Yorker settlers who flooded the city well until the 1870s. The migration of Dutch Reformed immigrations that followed to the 3rd Ward created a unique ruling political culture with the New England and New Yorker political leadership that continues to dominate Grand Rapids and Kentwood’s politics. Eastern European immigrants largely settled on the west side of the Grand River, although strong class divisions existed between the “hill” voters (who lived in the western suburbs region of Grand Rapids) and those who lived in the western core and streetcar neighborhoods. A similar development occurred in the 2nd Ward, with a strong- working class base in the northern streetcar neighborhoods that is markedly different from the northern suburban neighborhoods that were annexed in the early 1960s. The migration of African Americans between 1910 and 1960 into the 3rd Ward of Grand Rapids created a strong Urban Core Belt region with a strong minority voice in city politics. A Hispanic Gateway region on the southwest side of Grand Rapids is still developing, and has very limited political involvement in state and local politics, although this might change in coming years.
As a result, these regions have distinct political cultures. The Urban Core precincts are overwhelmingly African American in population, and largely are located in the 3rd Ward. The City Core is largely white ethnicity and built before the 1890s, and is relatively dense in population. The Western Core is located in the 1st Ward and is substantially more working-class than the Western Streetcar neighborhoods that lie directly to the west “up the hill” that traditionally has marked the political divide on the west side. The North Streetcar region was built between 1890 and 1920, and has historically been working-class and Catholic, remaining largely ethnic white in population. The South Streetcar precincts that cover a large portion of the 75th State House District were largely built between 1890 and 1920, although portions of Alger Heights were developed up to 1940. Historically the heartland of the Christian Reformed Church, this neighborhood has experienced substantial ethnic resorting in the past twenty years, as neighborhoods such as Garfield Park and Oakdale have become increasingly diverse as many CRC residents have moved to the suburban portions of Grand Rapids and Kentwood. This portion of the 75th District provided much of the local Republican leadership after the 1970s until recent years. The South, North, and West Suburban neighborhoods were built after 1945, exhibit many similarities to the suburbs built largely at the same time in Kentwood and Wyoming, and the most Republican and affluent neighborhood within the city.
Table 2: May Elections by Region
Let’s look again the voter turnout data from Table 1, but break it down by region as shown in Table 2. As expected, different regions of the city have vastly different turnout over the past five May elections. Turnout ranges from 3%-9% in the City Core, 2%-6% in Hispanic, 6%-15% in North Streetcar, 7%-20% in North Suburb, 6%-17% in South Streetcar, 7%-16% in South Suburb, 5%-8% in Urban Core, 3%-7% in West Core, 6%-15% in West Streetcar, and 7%-24% in West Suburb. Turnout increases noticeably when millage issues are on the ballot in the May elections, as shown in the past four millage issues facing the voters in May and August elections. It would be unlikely if this trend did not continue in May 2010.
In the past four millage elections in May and August, support has varied considerably by region. The West Core and Hispanic regions never have given a majority for a millage vote. Given the failure of millage supporters to boost turnout in the Hispanic region, as well as the historic “anti-tax” sentiment on the west side of the Grand, this is hardly a surprise. On the flip side, The South Streetcar and South Suburb regions have overwhelmingly supported every millage, never falling below 55% in favor. Other regions are more circumspect with their support of millage issues. The Urban Core region has strongly supported millages for the Rapid in 2007 and 2009, but was less supportive of the 2004 and 2008 measures for Zoo expansion and Grand Rapids Community College. The City Core has become increasingly supportive of millage issues over the past five years, and only narrowly rejected the 2004 Zoo millage.
The four regions on the West and North Side (West Streetcar, North Streetcar, West Suburb, and North Suburb) are the wildcards. The West Side Streetcar and Suburb regions voted for the August 2008 millage, but strongly rejected the May 2009 millage for the Rapid. The same patterned occurred on a smaller scale in the North Streetcar and North Suburb regions. On election night, I would expect city officials to be watching these four regions closely as the returns come in.
So what can we expect on May 4? First, I expect turnout to be on the higher end of the spectrum with 13% of voters casting a ballot. As I previously noted, millage votes bring voters to the polls, especially one that calls for an increase in the city income tax. Secondly, I expect the millage to pass with about 55% of the vote. While anti-tax advocates have made loud noises about how voters turned away “enormous” tax increases in 2004, 2008, and 2009, the only millage not to pass in Grand Rapids was the 2004 Zoo measure. Indeed, the efforts of Eric Larson (now a candidate for the Michigan State House) and other anti-tax advocates succeeded in 2009 on a careful understanding of western suburbs’ (Wyoming, Walker, Grandville, and Alpine Township) resistance to expanded governmental services. If 16,811 city voters head to the polls, I would expect around 9,390 voters to support the ballot measure, and 7,421 to vote against it.
Table 3: Project 2010 May election results
Table 3 breaks down the projected turnout by region, and as in past elections, I expect that the South Streetcar, Urban Core, City Core, and South Suburb regions will give over 59% of their votes in the affirmative. Likewise, of the regions in which a majority will oppose the measure (West Streetcar, West Core, West Suburb and North Suburb), I project that supporters will still pull at least 40% of the vote in each. The bell weather region will be the North Streetcar, which I project to support the measure with a bare majority of 51%. While the Hispanic region is projected to give a small majority in favor of the ballot measure, the turnout will still be rather low and will have a minimal impact on the end result.
Now, these projections are only projections. I haven’t see the mobilization efforts by supporters and opponents of the measure as in past ballot battles, but given that there are still 5 weeks until May 4, we might see this still occur. Supporters will likely launch a campaign geared towards voters in the 3rd Ward, while opponents would likely focus their efforts towards West Side voters. I personally think that city officials hope for lower turnout, given that higher turnout generally means opponents of the income tax increase are being mobilized to go to the polls (see 2004 Zoo millage). If I were Grand Rapids City Manager Greg Sundstrom, I would start to worry about the successful passage of the measure if voter turnout when above 16%. However, he has 5 weeks to talk about all the services that will be cut if the income tax increase fails on May 4.