Finding a solution to gerrymandering in Michigan

The nice lady at the local farmers market approached me over the weekend. "Won't you sign our petition against gerrymandering?”

"Voters should choose their politicians, not the other way around," she said.

She was collecting signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the Michigan ballot in November 2018 that would create an "Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission" and give it, not the state legislature, the power to set congressional and legislative redistricting boundaries.

"Voters, not Politicians" is working to gather 315,654 registered voter signatures within a 180-day window, the minimum number of signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot. Because of inevitable errors and duplications in the signature-gathering process, the real number they’ll need is probably closer to 400,000 ‒ not easy to achieve, even with enthusiastic volunteer circulators.

What they want to eliminate is gerrymandering, the classic device politicians have been using for years and years to stack the deck to favor one political party over the other.

Like the old Ella Fitzgerald song "Let's Fall In Love,” Democrats do it; Republicans do it – every party, given half a chance, does it.

The usual outcomes in extreme cases combine to make up the worst of all possible worlds: Hyperpartisanship, corruption, arrogance and incompetence. And that’s pretty much what we have in today’s Michigan. Most of our districts are stacked so only one side can win, meaning that office-holders don't have to care about those who didn’t support them, making these residents, in effect voiceless minorities.

Republicans were completely in charge of redistricting in Michigan the last time it was done ‒ and the disproportionality in electoral results becomes clear when you look at the voting statistics.

GOP legislators in 2011 erected one of the nation's most effective gerrymandering systems. In 2012, although Democrats polled 52 percent of the votes, they won but 46 percent of contested state House of Representative seats. Two years later it was 51 percent of Dem votes for state House, but only 43 percent of seats.

Two years later, in 2016, the figures were almost identical; 50 percent and 43 percent. As for the U.S. Congress, Democrats have had an actual plurality of the vote in several recent elections – but have never won more than 36 percent of the seats: five of 14.

While all this has been going on, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Gill v. Whitford, a gerrymandering case from Wisconsin, where a federal judge held the new maps adopted by the Republican-led legislature in that state were "intended to burden the representational rights of Democratic voters ... by impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats."

MORE COVERAGE: Gerrymandering in Michigan is among the nation’s worst, new test claims

Wisconsin appealed, and oral arguments will be presented before the high court in Washington today. (Tuesday Oct. 3.)

Should the Supreme Court rule against Wisconsin, it could lead to a profound upheaval in both political parties’ ability to act out their parochial and selfish political impulses.

That probably won’t have a practical effect until after the 2020 census, which, like every census, will shape and reshape the politics of our country by reshaping federal, state and local elective districts.

Most people I've talked with share a profound distaste for gerrymandering and its democracy-destroying results.

Beyond that, I don't have a dog in the fight.

Whether the “Voters, Not Politicians” solution of an independent redistricting commission will work, I simply don't know. Some states – Iowa being a nearby example – reportedly have had a good experience. Some critics say assuming the political system can be fended off  by an "independent" commission is naïve.

Others say a better solution is the so-called "jungle primary," a system that pits the top two primary election vote-getters against each other in the general election, regardless of party.

That way, each candidate is forced to appeal to independents, moderates and ticket-splitting voters from the other side, thereby reducing the appeal of hyper-partisan extremism.

Because the issue of how to improve the workings of our political system should be at the core of the political debate in next year's election, it's important we have a robust discussion about this issue – and I encourage Bridge readers to have at it. Our magazine is eager to run your opinions and arguments. Just send them to me at ppower@thecenterformichigan.net .

I expect to be fascinated by the range of creative thinking and the possibility that an informed citizenry may, just may, thereby have an effect on the ways in which electoral policy is formed.

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Rich
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 9:05am

I would be wary of any commission or "independent body" being any different from the current system. I think the result would be identical to today's system except that the outcome would be slanted to whichever party held majority on the commission. There are no guaranteed "independent bodies".

A way that could be used would treat Michigan like an engineering mass. It would have a center of gravity and a moment of inertia based on location and population of each location, Add to that the rule that the districts be of a simple shape, like a square or rectangle. A computer could determine the districts. That would be something I could live with, a predetermined set of rules guaranteed to produce an un-biased result.

Gerry Roston
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 10:40am

I fundamentally agree with Rich's approach. However, I would use a different metric, namely to minimize the perimeter to area ratio, i.e., make the districts as compact as possible. It also would make sense to 'skew' the geography by taking into account things like rivers and railroads tracks, which only offer limited ability to cross. Regardless of the details, a computer algorithm (which must be open source) can be developed to come up with 'optimal' districts.

Tina Israel
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 1:57pm

Rich: Please read the full proposal.

Joe Spaulding
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 9:34am

When thinking about the way districts are drawn in Michigan, transparency absolutely has to be the most important factor in whichever system ends up drawing the final maps. The ballot initiative being proposed by Voters Not Politicians takes transparency so seriously that everything down to the variables used by the software that draws the actual maps will be made public record. Right now, the people with the worst conflicts of interest are the ones who draw the maps behind closed doors with absolutely no public input. The proposed commission requires bipartisan support, in addition to support from independents, I'm order for the final distracts to be approved. Michiganders are done being left in the dark by their elected officials while they pursue partisan interests and ignore the most important issues of the day. It's time to clear the fox out of the hen house. The right path forward for Michigan is clear, and it starts with supporting Voters Not Politicians.

Bob Balwinski
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 10:10am

Phil, this is a question I ask often. Why do I, as a member of no political party, get to choose which party primary to vote in? I say let the card-carrying members of any political party pick their candidates. Then, when the general election is held, I get to vote.
So, attracting independents to primary voting makes no sense to me with respect to your thoughts on a "jungle primary."

Barry Visel
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 11:37am

For state and national districts, it seems to me an algorithm that uses census tract data to divide the state into districts that have as equal population as possible, and as equal geometric shapes as possible would be the way to go. This would disregard political boundaries such as counties, cities, villages and townships, and I wouldn't have a problem with that.

Anonymous
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 1:32pm

I think that the purpose of the independent citizens commission is not to determine the approach that will be used, but rather to ensure that the people drawing the districts will have to be fair to each other. The commission will inevitability agree to software and things like that, and the part that is fabulous to me is that for the first time, it will be public information which criteria they used. The independent commission would be chosen through a lottery, run by the Secretary of State, so the people who are selected would be random, similar to a jury. The criteria for the commission makeup is 4 republicans, 4 democrats and 5 independents (probably because not all independents share a common set of values). Not only would the makeup of the commission be fair, but the commission would also be required to a fair level of agreement before the new districts would be adopted. 2 republicans, 2 democrats and 2 independents would have to agree to the district choices, so that the districts are nonpartisan. I personally think that the policy has been well thought out, I like that surveys were conducted to determine what Michigan voters would like to see when our redistricting is reformed, and that is what Voters Not Politicians used to guide their policy writing process. I am also inspired by how hard VNP volunteers (None of the circulators are paid!) are working to get this ballot proposal up for vote in 2018. They are everywhere! To me, the entire spirit of this effort is exactly what our country needs: People working together to solve a problem so that government is more fair to all of us. It truly inspires me, and will be voting yes in November 2018. Heck, I might even throw my name into the lottery for the independent commission.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 1:02pm

I see the "Voters, not Politicians" petition drive going the same way as what happened with Prop 1 of 2008.

Remind me again exactly how long did it took for our elected representatives to muck that process up?

And to address Mr. Balwinski's point; If the political parties want to balk at who gets to vote in their primaries, instead of sticking the Michigan Taxpayer with the bill for holding the election, they can just as easily hold closed county and/or district caucuses where the party itself pays foreverything.

Why they haven't done this already is still a mystery to me.

The republicans claim that they are fiscally conservative, yet will not think twice about taking a handout from the government to pay for something they can easily do internally.

The democrats claim that everybody and their brother should be able just walk right into a polling place to cast their vote with no questions asked regarding who they are or where they live.

Let them both put their philosophies into practice.

And as for the solution that Mr. Power was asking for, it really is simple. Remove all party labels on the ballot, and let the individual candidates run on name recognition alone.

Office, candidate's name, done.

If they are so concerned that voters won't accept the philosophy contained in the respective platforms or positions on issues because of a cartoon next to their candidates name on the ballot (or who's names are clustered next to them on said ballot), then the philosophy that they espouse doesn't actually resonate as well as they thought.

Lisa
Wed, 10/04/2017 - 7:30am

The VnP proposal is a constitutional amendment, so the legislature can't repeal this one.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 10/04/2017 - 2:29pm

I didn't say that they could repeal it.

But since the legislature writes the laws that go along with it, it's a safe bet that they'll write those laws to give them an advantage in maintaining power.

Lisa, I would recommend that you read into exactly what happened with Prop 1. It is a good example of what happens when the voters support something that the legislature does not.

Sue Wallace
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 1:17pm

So, did you sign?

Jan BenDor
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 1:49pm

I would urge thoughtful readers to read the full VNP proposal BEFORE you sound off. The full text can be seen at http://www.votersnotpoliticians.com/language A group of 50 very smart Michigan citizens, advised by the Brennan Center for Constitutional Rights (they have worked with most of the other states on redistricting reform), spent several hundred hours debating and shaping this key reform. When you see the actual printed petition, notice how thick it is. That is because we had to include every tiny part of the State Constitution that we are reforming. Much of the detail is to fireproof the independence of the new commission from the partisan interests in and out of state government.

duane
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 11:28pm

It wore me out with the abrogation criteria, and structure, etc. The one point I was looking for was where it describe the material harm the current process of 'gerrymandering' has cause to Michigan and how it will be remedied by the change.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 10/04/2017 - 1:39pm

I would agree 100% with the fact that if they had people reading through everything in detail before signing the petition, the "tl:dr"-light would kick in for the majority of them and they would simply walk away.

As for the second part, the best way to describe the problem is to paraphrase a quote by Henry Ford regarding the Model T, "A customer can have a car painted any color he wants so long as it’s black."

Politically speaking, we're seeing the minority attempting to cement their hold in power by dictating to the majority what their political choices actually are, by skewing that choice via districts drawn to favor that party.

Sadly, this is something that George Washington warned us about over two centuries ago.

"However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."

http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/quotes/article/however-poli...

I would challenge anyone to argue how that description doesn't describe the democrats or the republicans today.

Mark H
Sun, 10/08/2017 - 12:10pm

Duane, For people who genuinely care about democracy, the currently highly gerrymandered political districts in Michigan are clearly harmful; they ensure that one party has dominance over the state government, despite losing the popular vote totals in the state. Democracy is supposed to mean one person, one vote, in straight up elections are matter. See Baker v. Carr, SCOTUS, 1964. Michiganders and all Americans deserve to actually have majority rule, democratic self-government. We don't now.

Abby Klemmer
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 6:17pm

Many other states have switched to Independent Citizens Redistricting Commissions, and it works! Washington State, Idaho, Arizona, California, Iowa. Voters should choose our politicians, not the other way around.

Michigan Observer
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 9:47pm

Yes, eliminating gerrymandering is a good idea and I hope the VNP proposal passes, but I doubt that gerrymandering is the cause of our dysfunctional political process. It isn't likely that it is responsible for, as Mr. Power says, "The usual outcomes in extreme cases combine to make up the worst of all possible worlds: Hyperpartisanship, corruption, arrogance and incompetence." Consider that gerrymandering has a long and dishonorable history in Michigan, but our history of a dysfunctional political process is fairly short, a few decades at most. So something else has changed, and without undoing that change, if possible, remedying gerrymandering will not usher in a golden age of harmony and effectiveness.

And, unfortunately, Mr. Power's other suggestion, the "jungle primary", much to my surprise, is not likely to be effective either. He says, "Others say a better solution is the so-called "jungle primary," a system that pits the top two primary election vote-getters against each other in the general election, regardless of party.

That way, each candidate is forced to appeal to independents, moderates and ticket-splitting voters from the other side, thereby reducing the appeal of hyper-partisan extremism." It seemed reasonable to me that it would have that effect. (One more of my many misjudgments.) But an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times following the June 2014 California primary and an assessment from the Brookings Institution makes it clear that the jungle primary had unintended consequences. The majority party, in this case, the Democrats, was at a distinct disadvantage because they had more candidates running in the primary and they split the Democratic vote into smaller chunks than the Republicans, and so two Republicans ran against each other in the general election even though there were more total votes for Democrats than for Republicans.

It would be wonderful if a simple restructuring of our electoral process was sufficient to cure our bitter divisions, but the two parties are pursuing different, incompatible moral visions, and people do not compromise on issues of deeply held systems of morality.

duane
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 1:11am

Michigan,

One reality of the 'jungle primary' is that campaign spending will mushroom.

duane
Tue, 10/03/2017 - 11:06pm

It sounds like a select group of people are wanting to change things simply because they wants to change things.
I had a similar experience when going to our local Farmer’s Market, being approach to sign a petition to put the issue on the ballot. I was told that my vote wasn’t being counted because of ‘gerrymandering’. When I said in my community and precinct it was counted and there not even rumors about any election any votes not counted. I asked him if he meant it didn’t count [a bit less misleading] because it was a predominately Democrat/union district and if I voted another way my candidate wouldn’t win. He agreed that that was true in predominately one Party or the other districts. That raise my first concern, with all this what will change what physical harm, what long standing egregious harm to our governing will be rectified, what will we see in our daily lives the will change? Will we get better candidates, will voters know more about the candidates, and will the voters for losing candidates somehow have their votes mean more?
It seems during the late 70s and 80s there were Court directed efforts to ensure equality of ethnic participation in schools, and as I recall there were instances where the Courts were deciding district boundaries to ensure that there was a minimum number of ethnic representation in state legislatures. That seemed to be a type of ‘gerrymandering.’ If the new districting scheme is Party balance driven will that risk the imposition of Court ordered ‘gerrymandering’ for will ethnic balance? If so, should gender and other ‘minority group’ preferences be part of the redistricting requirements? With all we hear about the income gap, should income distribution will be part of the new redistricting criteria? With today’s politics being less a Party issue and more an interest group issue, do the same old arguments still apply for ‘gerrymandering’?
What will be the outcome of changing to a new and more convoluted bureaucratic scheme, will there be no more legal changes to elections, will we be able to measure the change in our election process, will we see less campaign spending, what will change?
Without answers to these questions, it seems like a lot of an elitist attitude toward how we vote and the process that has been in place for a couple of hundred years.
If all this effort were put into creating a set of criteria for evaluating candidates and the means to help voters get the information there would soon become a better informed group of voters and they would be able to encourage a better quality of candidates to choose from. And in the end it is the quality of elected official not some tweet to how we have Parties have be nudging the district lines to accommodate communities, Parties for over 200 years.

Sandra
Sun, 10/08/2017 - 1:12pm

Duane, if you read the literature on how gerrymandering works against all of us, you will see how an independent commission could vastly improve things in Michigan. Of course, no one measure is going to accomplish truly representative government. It's a process that will take awhile. But an independent commission for redistricting will help us get people into office who truly represent our interests, instead of the disinterest among legislators we have now. When voters see that happening, more of them will vote. Our trust in our legislators will increase. (All this HAS happened in the states with independent redistricting commissions). Then maybe we can start tackling other issues we really care about, like getting big money out of politics. An independent commission in this state is only a first step, but an extremely important one.

Debra Sacheck
Fri, 10/06/2017 - 1:10pm

A little NIAVE? I guess Canada must be pretty niave since they have had a redistricting commission since the 60's.

Matt
Sat, 10/07/2017 - 11:28am

The last thing Michigan needs is another commission for anything! There's no way a program or algorithm couldn't be developed with a set of prioritized boundary criteria and an allowable population variance and out it comes! Republicans should recognize that someday the shoe will be on the other foot and get it done. The big question is if this is really whet the Dems want or it would fly past the Voting Rights Act?

Sandra
Sun, 10/08/2017 - 1:17pm

ANY redistricting effort in the hands of the legislature -- not matter what party -- is going to draw the districts to their own advantage. The only way to stop this is to take the whole process out of the hands of legislators, period. That's why an independent commission for redistricting is a vital step in the reclaiming of representative government in Michigan.

Les
Sun, 10/08/2017 - 9:08am

Where is Salvaterria, Mexico? The article says 170 miles NW of Mexico City. Googlemaps shows it about 170 miles south of Mexico City.

Aimee Ergas
Mon, 10/09/2017 - 12:38pm

I am a volunteer for VNP, and I chose to work on this campaign because I believe that gerrymandering is a major problem in our dysfunctional voting system. I admire the effort and expertise that went into writing the proposal, the transparency of the organization's efforts, well as the enthusiasm and commitment of the many volunteers working to put it on the ballot. I've had mostly positive responses from people while out with my clipboard gathering signatures. The most memorable was: "This may be the only way we can assure a democracy for our grandchildren." Maybe it's naive to think it will succeed, but we'll never know if we don't try.

Christian
Fri, 10/20/2017 - 2:09pm

I'm sorry to say that there is no "line" to wait in to live/work/or study in the U.S legally. To obtain a U.S visa is extreamly difficult and the system is very unorganized. Mexico is indeed a third world country and more than 85% of the population can't afford to get the basic documentation required: a mexican passport ($100 USD); let alone pay the U.S visa fee ($200 USD). Even people who do have the economic stability to apply for a U.S visa are subjected to racial and social profiling during the interview process. There is no "line", it's like the Hunger Games, literally people perfer to cut down on meals to save money to apply for a Visa just to get regected nicely "
Thank you for applying for a US Visa, try again soon!" and not only that, they don't give people a refund. The visa system simply is not designed for third world countries. This has nothing to do with "illigal immigrants" being a threat to the United States, there are 3 times more productive undocumented people in the U.S, than there are undocumented criminals. Besides, there are criminals all over the world! A U.S. citizen just shot hundereds of people in Las Vegas; not because he's a U.S. citizen, but because he's a bad person. The U.S Government needs to fix their system.