A call for Michigan redistricting reform

The recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion affirming the constitutionality of Arizona’s independent redistricting commission has refocused public attention on a fundamental process in our representative democracy – the drawing of congressional and state legislative district boundaries. The Court ruled that the ultimate authority for determining how redistricting is to occur in each state rests with a state’s citizens and not the legislative bodies elected to serve the people. And if they choose to do so, citizens, rather than partisan politicians, can draw district boundaries.

Florida Supreme Court orders redrawn congressional maps

With the renewed national focus on the redistricting process, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan (CRC) is recommending Michigan lawmakers draft an amendment to the state constitution to reform the redistricting process for both congressional and state legislative districts. If they are unwilling to embrace reform, Michigan citizens should follow the lead of Arizona and initiate the necessary constitutional changes.

In 2000, Arizona voters approved a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment to remove the redistricting process from the state legislature and grant the power to draw district boundaries to the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, an appointed five-member, bipartisan body.

According to the official ballot language, Proposition 106 aimed to “end the practice of gerrymandering and improve voter and candidate participation in elections by creating an independent commission of balanced appointments to oversee the mapping of fair and competitive congressional and legislative districts.”

Arizona lawmakers did not like the congressional and state legislative maps the commission adopted in 2012 and sued the commission on the grounds that it violated the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations . . . .” Article I, Section 4.

The plaintiffs argued that the Elections Clause vests the redistricting process with the state legislature and precludes the commission from exercising its authority. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and held that redistricting is not the sole province of a legislative body, but instead it is a “legislative function.” The Court opined that Arizona voters exercised a legislative power they reserved to themselves under their constitution (i.e., through the initiative) to create the redistricting commission.

The Court’s ruling does not have anything directly to do with Michigan. Indirectly, it clarifies the rules and provides citizens and lawmakers an opportunity to reform Michigan’s redistricting process. What many will find in place today, even if they do just a cursory examination, is something far from an ideal process. For starters, the redistricting provisions contained in the 1963 Michigan Constitution were ruled unconstitutional in 1982 by the Michigan Supreme Court because they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

See The Center for Michigan’s 2011 report on the shortcomings of Michigan’s redistricting method

Lacking the constitutional foundation that most states rely on for redistricting, the process in Michigan occurs in a legislatively-devised and legislatively-adjustable framework. Lawmakers have the authority to establish the redistricting guidelines and parameters and, ultimately, draw district boundaries. If they don’t like the current guidelines, or the resulting maps, they have the authority to change them. It should be of little surprise that the results are congressional and legislative districts that are increasingly drawn to the benefit of the majority party in the years following the census; the election of politicians firmly entrenched in the extreme wings of their political parties, and a sense of disenfranchisement for minority voters in the “safe” districts.

Given the critical role redistricting plays in representative democracy, Michigan citizens should use the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling as motivation to demand that lawmakers take action to amend the state constitution to reform the process and provide clear guidelines for future redistricting. If lawmakers do not act, then citizens should initiate a constitutional amendment to do so.

In 2011, CRC examined the state’s redistricting process and called for reform. We reiterate that call and recommend that the 1963 Michigan Constitution should be amended to contain provisions to:

  • Recreate an independent redistricting commission
  • Limit redistricting to once per decade
  • Describe the appropriate redistricting procedures and timeline
  • Increase transparency and public engagement
  • Protect citizens’ right to challenge redistricting plans
  • Require redistricting plans to attend to specific standards (e.g., districts that minimize population variance, are contiguous, adhere to political boundaries, and protect communities of interest).

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Monica WilliamsClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Jan C.Dolan
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 9:54am
My congressional district is a classic example of redistricting gone wrong. It starts in Grosse Point,winds it way through part of Detroit, Southfield, Farmington Hills (but excludes the City of Farmington, then heads north through West Bloomfield and winds up near Pontiac. If Salvidor Dali designed a piece of sculpture, it could probably look like this district.
Dan Behm
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 9:57am
This concept makes good sense. The lack of an impartial redistricting process is one of the primary reasons that we have the extremes of the political spectrum winning elections. These extremes do not do a very good job of meeting in the middle and actually governing. Throw in Michigan's term limits and state lawmakers are loathe to cast a vote that will come back to haunt them in a future primary election when they consider running for Congress. Consequently, our state legislature is guided by possible future primary election fears (most that never materialize) resulting in an almost total absence of bi-partisanship on any issue of substance. Sadly, centrism has become the new form of radicalism. Moderates lose; money and extremism continue to win. Let's change this dynamic. Thanks, CRC, for prompting this important discussion.
Jill Rahrig
Sat, 08/15/2015 - 1:41pm
It is definitely time for the independent redistricting change in Michigan. The People are ready for it. The Project for Civic Engagement - Northwest Michigan members and the Michigan Independent Voters group are all behind and will promote related Michigan Constitutional change. The Project for Civic Engagement-Michigan website is under construction. If anyone Facebooks, here are the links to the above groups.https://www.facebook.com/groups/nwcap/?ref=bookmarkshttps://www.facebook.com/groups/michiganidependentvoters/?ref=bookmarks
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 9:57am
Yes! Please! Yesterday! Tired of both parties playing it safe by drawing as many "safe" districts as possible. Every district, that can be, should be competitive. We need the best ideas and people, not a member of a certain party, representing as many districts as we can.
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 9:59am
Doubt anything will get through our GOP dominated, gerrymandered legislature. They're happy to slant the table their way and get rid of democracy and voting.
Mary T
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 10:05am
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 10:27am
In the 2014 US congressional races, Democrats received slightly more votes than Republicans: Democrats: 1,515,716 (49.15%) Republicans: 1,463,854 (47.47%) But gerrymandering produced 9 Republicans and 5 Democrats In the races for the state House, Democrats received more votes but Republicans INCREASED their majority status: Democrats: 1,536,812 (50.98%) Republicans: 1,474,983 (48.93%) Gerrymandering turned a 61,829 margin FOR DEMOCRATS into a 63-47 "majority" for Republicans. In the races for the state Senate, the discrepancy is even more egregious: Gerrymandering turned a slim total-vote victory into a super-majority: Democrats: 1,483,927 (49.23%) Republicans: 1,527,343 (50.67%) A slim 43,416 statewide vote advantage (1.4%) was gerrymandered into a 27-11 (42%) advantage in the state Senate One of the prime reasons why this legislature is so dysfunctional is that they do not represent the electorate. The gerrymandered elections have more holes in it than our roads.
Mike B
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 10:33am
YES. It's time we get back to balance for both parties.
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 11:11am
It would be a very simple task to design nearly rectangular voting districts by using engineering principles that determine the center of mass or moment of inertia of any object. You may not like it if you are in a different district than your neighbor across the street, but at least it would be fair and equitable. And, no politics involved.
Connie B
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 11:14am
I totally support this! How do we proceed and get this done as soon as possible?
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 11:29am
Most of comments above are completely ignoring the fact that minority/demographic groups that support Democrats are far more concentrated than are those on the other side. Not that there isn't any gerrymandering, there clearly is, but let's face it, it started with the intention (originally by liberals) of creating "safe" or strong minority districts not with the idea of maximizing political party advantages. Given concentrated minority communities and college towns, any way of dividing districts using governmental unit boundaries, which agreed, would be more fair or logical, will give you largely similar results. Any board or commission will have it's biases and it's membership will turn into a fight . Come up with a computer program considering only government unit boundaries and you ... might have something but it's doubtful that this is what this is really all about.
Charles Richards
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 2:22pm
I am personally opposed to gerrymandering, but I think that a lot of the good government people are going to be disappointed by how little its elimination will improve our political process. I read he Center for Michigan's report and was not particularly impressed. It had a lot of very interesting political trivia, but very little insight into how much proper redistricting would have changed policy outcomes. They should have went through each election and shown how fairly drawn districts would have changed the results. In how many cases would properly drawn district lines have changed control of the Senate and House? To what extent would they have changed the center of gravity of the political process? Having said all of that, I hope there is a petition drive to amend the state constitution to create an independent redistricting commission. But perhaps alongside tha,t we should adopt an open primary like California and two or three other states have. The top two vote getters, irrespective of political party, run in the general election. That would empower moderates and minority party members. A candidate could not afford to just appeal to the extreme wing of their party because moderate members of his party and independents could join forces with members of the other party to defeat him. Politics would become less of a tribal, partisan, affair.
Fri, 07/17/2015 - 9:58am
I totally agree! An open primary would help moderate the swing s to the extremes. If we as taxpayers have to spend millions of dollars each year to run the primaries, we shouldn't make it for the benefit of the political parties.
Sun, 07/19/2015 - 11:08am
The top-two primary system is not only a dysfunctional farce, it is unconstitutional, as it limits the voters choice on election day. In many cases the two candidates end up being both from the same party; "nine of California's 53 congressional districts had same-party candidates". http://ballotpedia.org/Blanket_primaryPrimaries are discriminatory and waste taxpayer money on two exclusive groups while excluding independents - now equal to or more than those claiming affiliation with the two "major" parties. 90% of elections are decided by the party faithful in low-turnout primaries, often by less than one in ten eligible voters. A suit has been filed in New Jersey challenging closed primaries. http://www.independentvoterproject.org/newjerseyFor true competition in the marketplace of political ideas, policies and candidates, the electoral system needs to treat all candidates alike - major party, minor party or no party independents. All should be in the primary, or preferably none. Parties should nominate their candidates by convention or caucus as most still do (all "minor" parties). Save the $11 million wasted on two private political organizations for their popularity contest and invest it in a more transparent and fair voting process.
Larry M
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 3:05pm
An independent redistricting commission is a great first step, but some guidelines must be enacted to prevent factions from continuing to create salamanders, amoebas and snakes. District lines should be limited to four straight lines (allowing for the contours of state boundaries) and no more than four angled corners. Districts could be any four-sided shape (square, rectangle, parallelogram, rhombus, etc), of any size, as long as the whole state continues to be represented. Computers could still be used to draw the lines, but population and shape would be the top parameters for the algorithm to deal with, not party affiliation and race.
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 5:45pm
After the 2010 census, Craig Ruff of Public Sector Consultants published a sample map of sensibly drawn Congressional districts. It's still available (http://domemagazine.com/blogs/redistricting), along with his discussion of the criteria used. It's an excellent demonstration of the fact that such maps are indeed possible.
Mary Jo Nye
Tue, 07/14/2015 - 6:17pm
I live in Battle Creek, we are now hooked up to the Grand Rapids District. Who thought that up?
James Taylor
Wed, 07/15/2015 - 10:58am
I agree with the above viewpoints and feel strongly that the state's citizens need to step in and fix the districting process. We have not seen the outcomes happening which the public are asking for. The legislature seems to be working for itself or extreme demagogues, rather than the citizenry. Paul Henry once said that during the election you speak for your voters and promise what you can for those who vote for you, but after the election, you must represent all voters. A little of this type of thinking could stem the tide of rancor which we find ourselves in these days. While we are at it, I am surprised that there have not been calls for a constitutional convention due to the road funding mess which continues to plague us...
Thu, 07/16/2015 - 11:00am
This would help with getting the legislature to be more representative of the people.
Thu, 07/16/2015 - 3:10pm
Matthew, How do you define more representative of the people? Is it simply Party affiliation? It seems all the discussion is based on all party members being blindly loyal [having been raised a 'yellow dog' Democrat I understand that view], reality is that the electorate is much more self-motivated. It seems we have had this type of governing process for all the years of financial success [because that is what this is all about, other people's money] and the media made no issue of this. This issue is much like the whining about campaign financing, the people chose in spite of what all the whiners claim. If you doubt this simply consider the recent vote on road taxes, both Parties, most elected officials, and the excess campaign spending were for a 'yes' and we got a resounding 'no'. If there were a true interest in redistricting representing all the voters I wonder why the discussion ignores those non-affiliated voters, don’t they count?
Thu, 07/16/2015 - 3:25pm
If the authors and others were truly interested in mitigating Party influence on election it would seem they would have started at the local levels where it would be much simpler to institute change, the City and County level. I wonder why Cities such as Ann Arbor don't go to a non-partisan election [when was the last time a Republican won] or Wayne County. I notice the authors never mention how they expect a change in redistricting to improve the quality of candidates or the quality of elected officials or quality of government. As best I can tell their approach would simply create another set of officials that would have to be supported by State taxes with no measures of improve results for the citizens. It all sounds so self-serving with no assurances of improved governing results for the citizens. I will not support change simply because change can occur and because some 'well intended' people tell me I should. Show me how the suggested change will ensure 'honest' elected officials, better informed elected officials, elected officials that place leadership above re-election, that are willing to hold government agencies accountable for performance and provide the means for themselves to be held accountable, and offer metrics to verify the impact of the change. Until the authors or other proponents of changing are redistricting process are willing to address these points of value I see it as simply self-serving self-righteous people denigrating a process that has served us longer than they can remember.
John S.
Mon, 07/20/2015 - 5:30pm
This is an excellent idea. It's been awhile since I've looked, but there may be at best a dozen competitive house districts out of 110. Thus, if there's a contest, it's the primary election, and then only when there's an open seat. The more partisan and ideological voters are those who show up for primary elections. State legislators are aware of this. Trying to put pressure on members of the legislature is not likely to produce results--a zebra is not going to change its stripes. An initiative will be required to change things.
Tue, 07/21/2015 - 12:20am
I think that districts should follow the county or township lines that exist . How can I help get this horrible gerrymandering stopped? This is outrageous. I am in the same crazy district that starts in Grosse pointe and ends in west Bloomfield at my house. We must put an end to this.
Harry C
Sun, 08/23/2015 - 1:45am
I have zero confidence the legislature will voluntarily pass a gerrymandering reform amendment. We'd better get an initiative started.
Ron Dzwonkowski
Mon, 12/28/2015 - 10:12am
Redistricting in Michigan has become a nakedly partisan exercise in retaining power. It is a sham and a shame. I have no faith our current crop of politically secure lawmakers have any interest in small-d democracy. So ready the petitions. I'll sign.