Michiganvoters want a nonpartisan commission to take charge of drawing election lines in the state -- a job now tightly in the grip of the Legislature.
That's the message the Michigan Redistricting Collaborative is trumpeting from a new poll it commissioned of statewide voters. (Note: The Center for Michigan, Bridge Magazine's parent, is a member of the collaborative.)
"I think the results are pretty clear. Michiganvoters are not thrilled with our current process that results in communities being divided and politicians picking their voters. The polling results offer reform-minded legislators a good foundation for what the redistricting process could look like in 2021," said Christina Kuo of the Michigan Nonprofit Association, a member of the Collaborative.
The poll did indeed find 71 percent in favor of change. (UPDATE: Click here to view poll results.) But that adds up to pretty much zero chance of enacting a meaningful change in 2021 -- or any year.
To be clear, there is plenty of room to improve a key process that helps distort the formation of public policy. But it is this very importance that makes redistricting reform an almost impossible task.
Political leaders will never enact redistricting reform on their own. They will not give up that power, plain and simple. OK, scratch that, they would give up the power -- if they perceived that enough voters were so angry that it would cost them personally (i.e., by losing their political jobs and/or careers) by continuing to resist.
As the new poll shows, that ain't going to happen. Here's why: When first asked about the issue by the interviewer, a near majority (47 percent) said the current (bad) system was actually "fair." It was only after the interviewers described other options to drawing lines that support for change coalesced.
That's what is known as "soft" support. And "soft" support does not scare politicians. Nor does it propel successful ballot initiatives.
In 2005, California and Ohio both had ballot proposals to create redistricting commissions. Supporters of reform had reason to believe, via polls, that they would prevail.
They didn't. In Ohio, supporters spent $4.9 million to create a commission whose mandate would include making election districts "competitive." Opponents -- mainly big political players with much to lose if the status quo ended -- spent $5.2 million (figures from ballotpedia). On Election Day, 70 percent of voters rejected the same kind of reform being sought by the Michigan collaborative.
The lesson: Soft support for a ballot prop can erode quickly in a campaign context. People have to be pretty darn mad or excited to carry a ballot prop into law.
This new poll shows voters aren't that happy with the status quo, but neither are they really outraged by it.
By the way, in the weeks after the 2005 Ohio vote, polls found substantial, bipartisan majorities in favor of changes to make districts more "balanced" and "competitive."
California ended up trying again. In 2010, voters actually said yes to an independent, amateur commission to draw the lines.
Success? Well ... not exactly according to a recent story from Pro Publica, a nonprofit, national news site. Pro Publica found that Democratic Party operatives were able to essentially fool the amateur and outgunned independent redistricting commission into drawing district lines quite favorable to Democrats -- voters be darned.
I asked Kuo how the collaborative would advance their cause in the face of such resistance.
"MRC will continue education efforts to the public and our membership," she said. Also, (there's the) education of lawmakers who are reform-minded. I think this poll helps show the political establishment that there is public will for change and that any opposition would require numerous resources on their side as well. There are numerous ways we can bring about change, a citizen initiated ballot question is one of many ways we can bring about change. However, there was a lot of interest, from both sides of the aisle in the Legislature, prior to the 2011 redistricting, to reform our current process. This is an opportunity for reform-minded and principle-centered lawmakers to be a leader on this issue. There is little self or partisan interest now because, due to term limits, we don’t know who will wield the map-drawing pencil next time around. And we are more than willing to work with lawmakers to help make redistricting reform a reality in Michigan."
As a proponent of change, I hope Kuo's assessment is correct. As an observer of political culture, I fear it is not.