By State Rep. Jim Townsend
Every 10 years, Michigan gets the opportunity to press the reset button on its state and federal political boundaries. This is necessary to uphold the principle of equal representation for all by adjusting district boundaries to reflect geographic shifts in population. But because the redistricting process is left in the hands of partisans in the Legislature, our reapportionment process actually undermines equal representation, our political divisions only deepen and the will of the voters gets trumped by the self-interest of lawmakers.
After every federal census, Michigan's congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn. As in 38 other states, Michigan's redistricting process is highly partisan. The party in power in the year following a census is empowered to redraw, or "gerrymander," congressional and legislative district lines to benefit themselves at the expense of the opposing party.
Gerrymandering is an institution nearly as old as the U.S. Constitution, practiced widely by both Democrats and Republicans. When one party is out of power, the other takes full advantage of the situation. When the parties' fortunes reverse, the politics of revenge come into play.
A good many of our nation's congressional districts could be paintings by Pablo Picasso. Officials draw district lines with little regard for geography or the people who live in those districts. Instead, lawmakers draw district lines designed to pack the opposing party's voters into as few districts as possible, thus maximizing the number of seat for themselves. Looking at the way the city of Detroit is cut up, along with Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, one might admire these gerrymanderers' creativity if it weren't for the harm these districts do to our democracy.
Gerrymandering disenfranchises voters. Last November, Democrats won 250,000 more votes than Republicans did in state House elections in Michigan — and yet the Democratic Party is still in the minority (59-50-1). The current redistricting scheme does not reflect the will of the voters, nor does it uphold the values of our state or federal Constitutions. A government of, by and for the people should not allow lawmakers to choose the people who will participate in their next election. Having lawmakers design their own districts is perhaps the worst conflict of interest in our public life.
Partisan gerrymandering also ensures that the districts drawn are more politically polarized than we as a state and country actually are. When the only challenge an incumbent faces comes from within his or her own political party, compromise across the aisle is not encouraged. Ideological purity becomes more important than doing the people's business.
It's time for that to stop. Michigan's people deserve more than the petty bickering of political professionals who are only interested in career longevity, not serving the public. That is why I introduced House Joint Resolution I, an amendment to the state Constitution that takes our redistricting process out of the control of partisan legislators.
House Joint Resolution I prevents gerrymandering and political gamesmanship by vesting most of the redistricting power in the hands of the state auditor, a nonpartisan position. The state auditor would appoint five members to the redistricting commission. Elected officials, employees of political parties and lobbyists are barred from appointment. The speaker of the House, House minority leader, Senate majority leader and Senate minority leader would also appoint one member each to the commission.
As a people, we do not elect our leaders to bolster the power of political parties. There is not a single district in the state that belongs to Democrats or Republicans. They belong to the people, and it's time we made members of the state Legislature and Congress more accountable to them.