Guest column: Restore equal representation in Mich.

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.

CENTER FOR MICHIGAN SPECIAL REPORT ON REDISTRICTING 

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.

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.

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

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Comments

David Werner
Tue, 03/19/2013 - 9:33am
A fresh idea to an age old problem... I support this idea.
J Schneider
Tue, 03/19/2013 - 9:55am
"Gerrymandering disenfranchises voters." I support Rep. Townsend's resolution.
Tue, 03/19/2013 - 11:01am
If we are to live in a true democracy, this is the way to go.
Duane
Tue, 03/19/2013 - 12:53pm
I also noticed that Mr. Townsend does not explain his desired change based on such things as whether those that do or don't use his approach are better governed, are more or less fiscally successful, how people's voting rights are affected. It seems Mr. Townsend sole reason for his proposed change is he feels the Democratic Party is not being fairly represented. Nor does he suggest, even acknowledge, that voters may, many times do, split their votes. For if Mr. Townsend it correct about their being 250,000 more Democratic votes in in the State I wonder how he explains that we have so many State wide elected officials that are Republican. It would seem if there are more Democratic votes than Republican that when the voting is for the elections that are independent of district boundaries that those overwhelming numbers would be reflected in the office holder such as the Governor, Sec of State, etc. I wonder how Mr. Townsend over looked this fact or is an inconvenient truth. I notice that Mr. Townsend simply wants to transfer responsibility for drawing the district boundaries and mentions nothing about the constraints he would like to place on that person or the office which would be responsible. It seems Mr. Townsend’s expectation for this new system is that Democrats garner more seats in the Legislature. Not that Mr. Townsend is partisan since he is so upset with the partisan nature in today’s politics (somehow he seems to ignore that even before MR. Townsend took his first steps there was partisanship in Michigan politics). It couldn’t be that Mr. Townsend is oblivious of the Democratic Party’s view on this issue before he was elected and when they were establishing the district boundaries. Mr. Townsend’s plea for change is not new, we have heard it many times, but as in Mr. Townsend’s case it is from those who want more power but are no so motivated they want to gain that directly from the voters.
Dan Brown
Tue, 03/19/2013 - 3:37pm
Duane: Where to start? First, you say, "... if Mr. Townsend is correct about their being 250,000 more Democratic votes .....". If Duane were to take the time and check the results he would find that Democratic candidates for the state House of Representatives out-polled Republican candidates by 350,000 votes, not 250,000. Second, what does the fact that state-wide offices of governor, etc. are held by Republicans have to do with which party should control either the House or Senate? What is Duane's concept of "representative" government? Is it unreasonable to expect that relative voting strengths of parties in a house of "representatives" might be in pretty direct proportion to the votes received in the general election? As to Townsend's proposal: First, good luck Mr. Townsend. You're hardly likely to get your Republican friends in this legislature to be sympathetic to your proposal. Second, if the achievement of a "representative" legislature is what you have in mind, tinkering around with a better way to draw legislative districts is a waste of time and effort. I'd suggest a straightforward constitutional amendment that says, in effect, that "voting strength in each house of the legislature must be distributed between and among parties in direct proportion to the total number of votes received by each party in the general election." This could mean a number of things: That our present winner-take-all system of elections must be abandoned; That a system of allocation of seats in the legislature must be changed; etc. In any event, such and amendment should give the Supreme Court a hard and fast standard by which to adjudge whether the voting membership in the legislature conforms to the constitution.
chainsaw
Tue, 03/19/2013 - 1:26pm
Let us vote on it !
Duane
Tue, 03/19/2013 - 10:24pm
Mr. Brown, Thank you for correcting my mistake. Though that does not answer the question if there are even more Deomcratic voter then I had thought, then why aren't there more if not all State wide office holder Democrats? I would think that if there are more Democratic voters within the Districts then that would be sufficient to elect Democrats to those State wide offices. Or at least as Mr. Townsend suggests the District boundaries are what prevents the proper representation of the Deomcrat voters. However, when the District boundaries are not an issue in counting the Democrat votes it seems that the Republicans recieve more votes. I was raised to be a 'yellow dog' Democrat, so I do know that there are those voters who do have blind faith in their Party and its candidates. I don't know enough Republicans well enough to ask them whether the Party loyalty I was raised to have is also true in their Party. I do know that there are voters who are register with a Party and yet when the use the 'secret' ballot they will consider the candidate and are willing to vote for candidates from the other Party. That would suggest that when people go into the voting booth they may even split their ticket, which could have some influence in the voting patterns Mr. Townsend sees as so critcal to is justification of changing a historic practice.