Even before the snows of last year’s interminable winter melted, Michigan residents knew what they wanted from their legislature: A fix for the state’s deplorable roads. It was one of the most agreed-upon points of the Center for Michigan’s 2014 “Michigan Speaks” agenda for the coming election, and the focus of a billboard campaign.
But when the Legislature adjourned for the summer, it still had no deal to get the job done. with the Republican-run Senate, averse to raising taxes in heavily Republican districts in an election year, couldn’t muster the funds for roads.
Whether that is a function of politics as usual or evidence of a bigger problem, like the state’s longstanding system for setting district boundaries, is open to debate.
But while Michigan continues to give ruling political parties control of district lines, some states are trying fresh approaches.
When California was preparing to convene its first citizens’ redistricting commission, following the 2008 passage of the ballot initiative known as Proposition 11, the process to choose eight commissioners began with a call for applicants. Kathay Feng, executive director of Common Cause California and someone who had seen the process of reform grind on for years, hoped maybe 500 Californians would apply for the eight-member commission.
Thirty thousand submitted applications.
To Feng and others, including many Republicans who supported Prop 11 – which led to a redrawing of the state’s congressional and legislative districts by the nonpartisan commission – the outpouring was proof of the thirst for political change. There was “this fundamental feeling that redistricting is too much the plaything of people who are self-interested in the outcome,” Feng said. “Regular citizens have their voices and choices taken from them.”
Whether the same frustration exists in Michigan is an open question. To some Democrats, Michigan needs not only redistricting reform, but also needs to tune up election practices, enact campaign finance reform and improve its procedures for selecting judges. Many Republicans, who are generally benefiting from the status quo at the moment, see less of a need. Can voters be persuaded? No one knows.
Democrat Jocelyn Benson, dean of the Wayne State University Law School and a long-time advocate of grassroots political reform, said she is hopeful. Michigan, she said, has “fallen behind other states in the last decade,” and not just reform-minded California.
Controversies like the 2000 Florida recount, and irregularities in Ohio voting in the 2004 presidential race, haven’t happened here yet. But they could. And if one does, it could be the impetus for reform in one area.
“Bush v. Gore was really the turning point for attention on the voting process,” said Benson, who ran unsuccessfully for the Michigan Secretary of State’s office in 2010. But people from both parties need to become more engaged and demand change, she added, ensuring that “whoever is in power has no incentive to change the rules of the game.”
Mark Grebner, president of Practical Political Consulting in Lansing and a longtime observer of the state’s political structure, said state Republican leaders, who control the House, Senate and Governor’s office, are reluctant to talk about the kind of political reform that drives Democrats. While progressives talk about the need to more fairly draw legislative districts and make it easier for residents to vote, Republicans are more likely to see reform in the context of squelching voter fraud and rethinking how the state’s electoral votes are apportioned in presidential elections. All of which makes a bipartisan legislative consensus more wishful thinking than war-room plotting.
Republican lawmakers have been successful at tightening restrictions on voting, passing laws requiring photo ID and curtailing early and weekend voting in some states. Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The decision removed nine states and many counties and municipalities from federal oversight, and was cheered by Republicans as a sign that the country has recovered from the racial discrimination that made the Voting Rights Act necessary.
“There are folks in the legislature who are absolutely not interested in real reform,” said Jan BenDor, statewide coordinator for the nonpartisan Michigan election Reform Alliance, reeling off a list of complaints: Aging voting machines, poorly trained poll workers, an unclear mandate to police election law, just to start.
“It’s frustrating, trying to keep up with states that are making progress,” she said, adding that the state should be investigating such reforms as online registration, no-reason absentee voting (residents currently qualify for absentee ballots only if they are unable to vote because of a specific list of reasons), even same-day registration, changes generally backed by Democrats.
Nationally, nine states have passed laws in the last two years, generally making voting more difficult.
Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has said she would be open to both online registration and no-reason absentee voting, but no legislation has been introduced this past session.
Movement on federal districts
There is talk of changing how federal legislative districts are drawn in Michigan. Redistricting occurs after each U.S. Census, which won’t happen for six more years. But there is talk, in very preliminary stages, of a ballot proposal to form an independent citizens’ commission, like California’s, to take over the chore.
Susan Smith, president of the Michigan chapter of the League of Women Voters, said the group is “exploring the issue with others who are interested,” but that it would be premature to discuss details. But in general, Smith said, the LWV believes “current district lines (have) resulted in a situation where the voters are not fairly repr:esented.”
Redistricting, no matter which party controls it, usually seeks to cement incumbent advantage and disadvantage opponents. Democrats outnumber Republicans statewide, a fact reflected in recent statewide elections: Barack Obama carried the state by nearly 450,000 votes in 2012, and both of its U.S. senators are Democrats. Debbie Stabenow defeated Pete Hoekstra by 21 percentage points the same year. But redistricting that followed the 2010 census, when the state lost one congressional representative, resulted in a new map that allowed Republicans to capture nine of 14 seats, which Dems attributed to the evils of partisan redistricting, but others said could also be explained by demographics and geography (Democrats are more inclined to live in concentrated urban areas).
“When you look at how many people voted Democrat and Republican, the actual proportion in the U.S. congress and state legislature don’t really reflect that,” said Smith.
New districts include the 14th Congressional District in the Detroit area, which includes the upscale, white Grosse Pointes on Lake St. Clair in eastern Wayne County, and the largely African-American working-class city of Pontiac in Oakland County, nearly 40 miles away. Along the way, it dips south to include the Democratic-leaning Downriver suburbs of Detroit, then cuts north to run along 8 Mile Road and collect Southfield en route to Pontiac.
It’s an oddly-shaped configuration that regularly lands it on lists of the country’s most-gerrymandered districts. It is solidly, almost entirely Democratic; Rep. Gary Peters won the general election with more than 82 percent of the November 2012 vote (he is now running for U.S. Sentate).
Other districts in the area were similarly redrawn to make them safe for Republicans, including the 11th, which received national attention in 2012 when Kerry Benvolio, a heretofore unknown Republican, was easily elected after incumbent Thaddeus McCotter flamed out in a signature-gathering scandal.
It’s the sort of thing that makes Joseph Schwarz irritable. The Republican former congressman, state senator and Battle Creek mayor points to the 14th as Exhibit A in the case for redistricting reform in Michigan.
“The first rule one should follow is to draw the line in accordance with common community interest,” he said. But the rule that is followed is common party interest, Schwarz said, and while both parties do it, and have for decades, it’s time for it to stop.
Not so fast, says Bob LaBrant, a Lansing-based Republican strategist. Other factors are at play in explaining how some districts are drawn, including the Voting Rights Act. Southeast Michigan has always had two so-called majority minority districts, and due to the depopulation of Detroit, those districts have had to be redrawn to encompass where African Americans and other people of color have chosen to live. Hence the 14th.
“What I find most telling (about the latest redistricting) is that no lawsuits were filed,” LaBrant said, which suggests no Democrats thought they could successfully challenge newly drawn districts in court.
(A bill introduced last year by Kalamazoo Democrat Rep. Sean McCann to establish an independent redistricting commission in Michigan went nowhere.)
As long as one party has a hold on the governor’s office, the legislature and the state Supreme Court, there’s little motivation for the Legislature to change redistricting, Joe Schwarz said.
“Reasonable people should speak up because (right now) there are no races,” said Schwarz. “The incumbent is going to win reelection every time. But a good race brings good candidates out to run. We need competitive congressional districts. We need competitive legislative districts.”
Political cash stays secret
And, Schwarz said, Michigan needs campaign finance reform that allows for more transparency in how money is spent in political campaigns, though there is little to suggest that will happen soon in Michigan.
Gov. Snyder signed a bill last year that doubles the amount donors can give to campaigns, while protecting the anonymity of those who donate for so-called issue ads – not formally connected to individual candidates, but often strongly supportive of them – which have become major players in political campaigns.
In doing so, Snyder and the legislature thwarted the Republican secretary of state; Johnson had announced she wanted to force anonymous donors to reveal themselves earlier in the process, after which the legislature added language to the bill to prevent it.
To LaBrant, Democrats’ concerns over issue advertising is so much hand-wringing.
“The Democrats invented soft money and the issue ad. (Former state Democratic party chairman) Mark Brewer perfected issue ads with the ‘sleeping judge’ ad used against Cliff Taylor. The best way to deal with it is to do your own, and not engage in unilateral disarmament.”
Rich Robinson, of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said whether voters care about the issue remains to be seen:
“When the legislature and the governor blocked Ruth Johnson's proposed transparency initiative, it was done without a single Democratic vote. Republicans own that action completely. They are the champions and protectors of money laundering in state politics. Will Democrats make it an issue? If they do, will it have salience with voters? I don't know, but I think we are fools to accept politics with so little transparency. Government works for those who pay for it. Those who are driving the process should be made to stand up in public and accept the attention they deserve.”
Benson said other states are surging ahead of Michigan. Besides California’s redistricting commission, Colorado passed a package of measures that allow voters choices in how and when to vote, including by mail.
Grebner said such changes are potentially game-changers for the entire country, noting that being able to cast a secret ballot was one such reform, adopted nationally over a 10-year period in the late 19th Century.
“You used to vote in public, and announced your choice,” said Grebner. “The system was inherently corrupt – it was all based on bribes. What was the political movement that brought that change about? It’s an amazing reform. We could never go back.”
Reform is complicated by the fact the U.S. is a big country, with 50 states that are still quite different from one another. But presidential elections are national events, and can drive states toward consistency and shared ideas of reform, Grebner said.
“Every state has spent 150 years developing its own weird history, so a primary in Michigan and a primary in Wisconsin have nothing to do with each other. But the ideas can move across state lines. The primary is an innovation from 1908, but by 1912 it had swept across the country. It was an idea whose time had come.”