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Surge in voter registration in Kent County could shape race for 3rd Congressional District

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
An early voting tent at New Hope Baptist Church in Grand Rapids.

In November of 1974, Richard Vander Veen was elected to the U.S. Congress from what was then Michigan’s fifth district.

Vander Veen was from Grand Rapids. He had won a special election earlier that year, after the previous incumbent, Gerald Ford, was named Vice President. Vander Veen was the first Democrat in 60 years to be elected to represent the area in Congress. But, two years later, he lost re-election, and no Democrat has held the seat since.

Grand Rapids hasn't had a Democratic representative in Congress since Richard Vander Veen left office in 1977.

Now there’s a Democrat who thinks she has a shot. Polls show a close race.

The district includes Calhoun, Barry, and Ionia counties. But most of the votes in the district come from Kent County.

And you can learn a lot about the fate of the Republican Party in Kent County through the voting history of Jim Spicer.

Spicer says he was staunchly Republican - until 2008, when an Illinois Senator named Barack Obama ran for President.

“Yep that was the first Democrat I ever voted for,” Spicer says.

Obama was inspiring Spicer says. He talked about bringing people together. That year, helped by voters like Spicer, Obama won Kent County and won the presidency.

But almost immediately, Spicer says he was disappointed. In 2012, he voted Republican again, choosing Mitt Romney. Romney won Kent County (though lost the presidency).

Fast forward another four years. Spicer wasn’t going to vote for Hillary Clinton. But he also really doesn’t like Donald Trump.

“So I started looking into the quote – unquote third party candidates,” he says. “And Gary Johnson caught my eye.”

Gary Johnson, the Libertarian.

Now, in 2020, Spicer says he’s sticking with the Libertarian party, and voting for Jo Jorgensen for president. 

So what does this all mean for a Congressional race?

Stateside's conversation with Dustin Dwyer about the race in MI-3.

During all this time, the race for the Third Congressional district wasn’t very competitive. But it tracks a lot of what Spicer was going through.

Justin Amash, the Republican who held the seat, also didn’t like Donald Trump. He also switched parties, and is now a Libertarian.

But Amash is not running for re-election. 

So: A district, historically Republican, with at least some fed up Republicans and no incumbent? Could it switch?

The choice comes down to Peter Meijer – a Republican

And Hillary Scholten – a Democrat

Spicer’s vote:

“I’m actually pretty excited about Peter Meijer,” he says.

Meijer served in the military, wants to cut government spending, supports protecting the Second Amendment – all things Spicer likes.

So while Trump lost his vote for the Presidency, Spicer at least is still picking a Republican for Congress.

But polls now say it’s a close race between Meijer and Scholten.

And in the end it may not come down to who voted in the past. 

A couple Sundays ago I was on the south side of Grand Rapids where some organizers and the city set up an event called Souls to the Polls, outside New Hope Baptist Church. There was voter registration, absentee ballot drop off and early voting in the parking lot.

And there were volunteers encouraging people in the neighborhood to cast their vote.

They came across Bennie Mayfield on a basketball court. They called out to him, and convinced him to go cast his vote.

“You weren’t going to vote?” I asked him as he walked toward the voting tent, set up by the city.

“Nope,” he says.

“Why not?”

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Bennie Mayfield had decided not to vote until some volunteers and organizers convinced him otherwise. Voters like him could make the difference in a close race for the Third Congressional District.

“I mean I figure my vote don’t have no say so in it,” he says. “Because they corrupt. They going to do what they want to do anyway.”

Mayfield has voted before, but he wasn’t going to vote this time.

Until someone convinced him to.

That day I also met Angela Inge.

“I have never voted,” she tells me.


“I don’t know why,” she says. “I just, I don’t know. I didn’t think it was important. I didn’t think it was as important.”

So she voted this time. Mayfield didn’t want to tell me who he voted for. Inge says she voted for all Democrats, including Scholten.

They both live in a Congressional district that’s gone Republican almost every election for the past 100 years.

But since 2016, the city has added about 12,500 more registered voters. The county – the biggest county in the District – has added more than 40,000 registered voters.

If these people come out and vote – not just for president, but for the Congressional race – their vote will determine the future history of the district.

This story has been updated to reflect the most recent voter registration numbers from the Kent County clerk's office, as of October 22, 2020.

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Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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