Redistricting reform is key to fixing our “jerry-rigged” government

Washington is broken.

Those three words may have become the most common description of the sad state of affairs in our nation’s capital. But they don’t begin to capture the frustration, anger and disgust that Americans feel when they watch our Congress careen from one manufactured crisis to another. The inhabitants of Capitol Hill are seemingly unaware of the chaos they have created, and appear unable to develop real long-term solutions for fixing the mess that we find ourselves in.

The most recent government shutdown was only the culmination of months of infighting and impasse. The central representative body in the world’s greatest democracy now regularly grinds to a standstill over issues that just a few years ago would have been resolved in principled compromise crafted by political combatants who knew the limits of their own partisanship. In times past, Congress was comprised of statesmen and women who didn’t create problems - they solved them.

But in today’s Washington, that notion seems like a quaint artifact of the past.

How did this come to be?

And what, if anything, can we do to fix it?

While there are many factors that contribute to our democracy’s current dysfunction, it’s largely the synergy of the most recent round of gerrymandering and the rise of the Tea Party that has torn our political system loose from its moorings.

Gerrymandering – the practice of redrawing political boundaries to enhance the power of one political party at the expense of another – is nearly as old as our American democracy. But what makes it so pernicious today is that it has allowed a well-financed ideological minority to gain undue influence in the Republican Party and then use that power to prevent Congress from reaching agreement on issues as wide-ranging as immigration policy, entitlement reform and climate change.

How? Because in districts that are noncompetitive – those clearly dominated by one political party – the primary election becomes the only meaningful election. Most moderate voters in both parties skip primaries. The ideologically inclined voters who do show up, perhaps 15 percent of those registered, call the tune. That does not reflect the interests of the vast majority of the electorate.

Gerrymandering has always been at odds with our democratic values. Americans believe that voters should pick their representatives in free elections. Gerrymandering allows politicians to pick their voters as they – or their friends in state legislatures - draw their districts.

And as our elected leaders are consistently unable to come to agreement, it now threatens the body politic itself.

Yes, our government is broken. And politicians elected in gerrymandered districts have no incentive to fix the system that elected them in the first place. But voters do. And we can!

Given the limited opportunities for legal recourse, the only way to give voters a meaningful voice in how districts are drawn is to take the redistricting authority away from the Legislature and give it to an independent, non-partisan reapportionment commission.

Until that reform occurs, voters will have limited ability to influence a process that is driven primarily by partisanship and politics at the expense of us all.

Jocelyn Benson is Dean of the Wayne State University Law School and the 2010 Democratic candidate for Secretary of State. Joe Schwarz is a former Republican member of Congress, a former long-time Michigan legislator, and a practicing physician in Battle Creek.

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.


Tue, 10/22/2013 - 9:05am
I couldn't agree more with these distinguished authors. I have introduced a proposal in the Michigan legislature that would reform the gerrymandering process. It's more timely than ever in the wake of the recent shutdown in DC. Arizona, Washington, Iowa and California have forms of non-partisan redistricting, and Illinois is considering it also.
Mike R
Tue, 10/22/2013 - 1:29pm
Representative McCann, please summarize for us the reform you're proposing.
Tue, 10/22/2013 - 9:51pm
Mike: Here are my bills: and But there are other proposals for how to do this as well, and any of them would represent a substantial improvement on the current system.
Nancy Derringer
Wed, 10/23/2013 - 8:36am
Rep. McCann, As you can probably see, your links aren't working. A hint: When you pull up a bill on that site, directly under the number (on the main page), you'll see "friendly link." Click, copy, paste, and your links should be fine.
Fri, 10/25/2013 - 12:33pm
Rep. McCann -- as I read the bill, you are altering the way that the commission membership is constructed. This is laudable. However, your bill seems to still populate the commission with members who are specifically chosen based on their party affiliation, and gives party leaders and officials oversight of the candidates for membership on the commission. I think that the commission must be non-partisan, not bi-partisan. We need to allow for the possibility that there are more than 2 parties with an interest in district alignment -- we need to allow for the Tea Party, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and any other groups of citizens, without giving preference to Republicans and Democrats. A party-based process is unavoidably partisan.
Tue, 10/22/2013 - 9:28am
Thank you Jocelyn and Joe for "crossing the line" and showing that as citizens we can make a difference.
Wed, 10/23/2013 - 6:21am
Kathy, thank you for being political correct in the 'crossing the line' reference in which Joe's comments are suspect.
Barry Visel
Tue, 10/22/2013 - 10:23am
Good idea, but only if we have "open" primaries so I can vote regardless of party affiliation.
Lee Kirk
Tue, 10/22/2013 - 10:43am
I agree with Barry. Public funds should not be used to choose candidates in closed primaries. This benefits political parties, which are private entities, and does not serve the public interest. We should also raise the bar for recall elections so that a sitting public official can only be recalled if the number of voters supporting recall is greater than the number of votes that official received when elected. I am wondering if the authors have ideas on how we might enact these reforms, given that it is highly unlikely that our state legislature will seize the initiative any time soon.
Kathy M F
Tue, 10/22/2013 - 12:39pm
Excellent column! Plus giving us something we can actually do to help "fix" this dis-functional government.
Tue, 10/22/2013 - 12:51pm
Wholehearted agreement. Democracy dies where elections cannot be open, fair and freely participated in. To rig outcomes by gerry-mandered partisan means -- and to allow to come to a vote only those measures endorsed by the majority of a single party (a la Hastert "rule") -- should be criminal.
Tue, 10/22/2013 - 5:02pm
Finally, an idea whose time has come! We need a level playing field at the ballot box. Primaries should be open as well so that voters aren't confused when they try to vote. Closed primaries have to be explained to voters over and over.... Our representation in Congress should represent the values of the voters.
Tue, 10/22/2013 - 5:25pm
Partisanship and Gerrymandering are as old as the republic. Gerrymandering was largely resurrected in the near recent use of creating all minority voting districts, and big surprise the other politicians caught on too! Extreme partisanship is on both sides, granny hears that it's the Republicans who want to take away her social security or and the Democrats want to drag her before a death panel! And the hyperbolic reaction to the recent government shutdown is more of the same. Maybe the best solution is for the political parties to be cut off from the public subsidy of free (at taxpayer expense) primaries and let them (and any other parties hopefully many that wish to form) settle out on their own who they wish to run under their umbrella and let the voters decide.
Fri, 10/25/2013 - 7:24am
great article
Fri, 10/25/2013 - 12:26pm
I seem to recall the Iowa prohibits the use of party affiliation or voting records, including political donation records, in the creation of district boundaries. That seems like a relatively simple modification to make. The US Census records provide residence location, age and headcount of the population. These seem to be the only relevant factors in drawing boundaries, since the objective is to reach a balanced persons-to-representative ratio. Other factors, including race, gender and economic status, complicate the boundary drawing process. I would like to see them removed from the process, but I admit I have not investigated the history and rationale for these factors.
Sun, 10/27/2013 - 9:16am
The federal government does seem broken and Congress is increasingly dysfunctional. However, while state government isn't perfect, over the past few years the Michigan Legislature has approved balanced budgets on time or early and Governor Snyder has provided strong leadership on important policy issues. Recent passage of Medicaid reform, while not quick or easy, is a good example of bipartisan cooperation in Lansing. My point here is that "election reforms" must be carefully targeted and well thought out to avoid unintended consequences or political gamesmanship.
Dan Brown
Sun, 10/27/2013 - 10:32pm
Apparently Benson and Schwarz think that non-partisan apportionment commissions will prevent situations like we achieved in 2012 where Republicans were out-polled by Democrats in Congressional elections but yet gained control of the U.S. House. There seems to be evidence that a non-partisan commission resulted in a bias in the other direction. In California, if the presidential vote can be taken as an indicator of the spread between Democrats and Republicans, it appears that the non-partisan districting resulted in a bias (dare we call it gerrymandering?) that favored the Democratic Party. Obama drew roughly 61 per cent of the vote in California. In the same election, Democratic candidates won some 67 to 70 percent of the seats in the California Assembly and in Congress. That's not "representative" any more than the results of the 2012 Congressional election. If Benson and Schwarz are truly concerned about representation, something in addition to the elimination of gerrymandering is needed. Perhaps there is something wrong with our winner-take-all system of elections. Perhaps we need a constitutional that says that the distribution of voting strength in the legislative bodies must be in the same proportion as the distribution of votes between the parties in the general election. Footnote: The current rage to have "competitive" districts is not the answer. In Michigan, there are currently 51 districts in which Republicans are not represented in the Michigan House. At the same time, there are 59 districts in which Democrats are not represented. The least "representative" district, under the current winner-take-all system are the most competitive districts where almost one-half of those voting are not represented.
Sun, 11/17/2013 - 9:13am
Dear Dan, There will always be anomalies like you highlight, no matter what rules or systems are used, because elections are "noisy" to a sufficient extent. The number of diverse issues and how people perceive their self-interest at the time generate lots of noise. TRYING TO IMPOSE A STATISTICAL RULE on every event is the very source of the gaming mentality, and would only make things worse. Let's keep this basic, non-partisan, and also mandate open primaries. There are plenty of examples out there already (Iowa, California, etc.).
Lisa Knowlton
Tue, 10/29/2013 - 10:08am
I concur, leaders solve problems...and the authors correctly take aim at the game of self-interest, not public service. This link provides the history of gerrymandering: apathy precludes action, we get what we deserve. Thanks for a thoughtful article.