California holds clues to how a redistricting commission could change Michigan

California uses an independent redistricting commission similar to what is being proposed in Michigan. The changes from that state’s former partisan redistricting aren’t as dramatic as critics of an independent commission feared.

Fewer competitive races in Michigan, where politicians draw the lines

Comparing Michigan and California Congressional races in 2016, the seven most competitive elections were all in California, and 13 out of the 15 elections were decided by 15 points or less. California has an independent commission draw district lines in a system similar to what is proposed by a group trying to change the Michigan Constitution.

SOURCES: Michigan Secretary of State and California Secretary of State

Nov. 7, 2018: One woman’s Facebook post leads to Michigan vote against gerrymandering

A group is collecting signatures to let voters decide if redistricting decisions in Michigan should continue to be made by the party in charge of the Legislature, or should be turned over to an independent, bipartisan commission.

The group, Voters Not Politicians, points to an independent redistricting commission that determines political district boundaries in California. Arizona also has an independent redistricting commission. Several other states have redistricting commissions, but the members are appointed by political leaders. 

What clues can Michigan voters glean from California’s experience taking redistricting away from politicians?

Related: Republican Supreme Court justices have ties to Michigan gerrymandering group
Related: Michigan gerrymandering petition on pace for ballot. Will state justices stop it?

More competitive districts

In California, the number of competitive elections (closer than 5 percentage points) for the state’s legislature increased from two races in 2010, the last election before the commission redrew district boundaries, to four races. That’s still a small percentage of the 120 seats in the State Assembly and the Senate.

In the U.S., just 3.7 percent of House of Representatives races were decided by 5 percent or less in 2016; California had twice that rate of House races decided by 5 percent or less.

Michigan had no House of Representatives races decided by 5 percent or less in 2016 or even 10 percent. The closest Michigan House race was the 11th District in Metro Detroit, won by Republican David Trott by 12.7 percent. California had seven House races that were more competitive than Trott’s race.

Little change in Dem-GOP share of seats

The Michigan Republican party has labeled the Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative as a Democratic plot to gain seats in the state Legislature and Congress. But if Michigan has the same experience as California, Republicans have little to worry about.

In 2010, the last election before the Commission redrew lines, California Democrats earned 52 percent of the votes for State Assembly candidates and won 65 percent of Assembly seats. Two years later, after the lines were redrawn by the independent commission, Democrats earned 58 percent of votes, and 69 percent of seats, according to election results available from the California Secretary of State.

The political party that had the most to lose by giving up the power to draw district lines actually gained seats.

Vince Barabba, a member of the California Redistricting Commission and a former General Motors executive, said the results between 2010 and 2012 had more to do with changing demographics in California than the way the lines were drawn.

In fact, the commission in California never looked at party affiliation of residents when drawing its maps, Barabba said. Instead, the most important factor was keeping “communities of interest” together.

Bipartisan maps

California’s commission is not able to draw new district maps without approval from at least some members of each party’s representatives. If all the Republicans on the commission voted in a block against a map, the group would have to go back to the drawing board, Barabba said.

The proposed redistricting commission in Michigan would require at least two out of four Republicans and two out of four Democrats to vote in favor of new maps.

Increased public input

Barabba, a Republican member of California’s redistricting commission who helped conceive and create the OnStar in-vehicle communication system for General Motors and twice headed the U.S. Census Bureau, said one of the best features of independent commissions is public input into mapmaking. He said the California commission members held dozens of meetings across the state, getting input on how the public felt lines should be drawn. Those meetings were critical to gaining public support, and in growing consensus among commission members, Barabba said.

“It’s not just about data,” Barabba said. “It’s about people.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Michigan Observer
Thu, 10/19/2017 - 10:34pm

"Vince Barabba, a member of the California Redistricting Commission and a former General Motors executive, said the results between 2010 and 2012 had more to do with changing demographics in California than the way the lines were drawn." Exactly.

Mary Fox
Sat, 10/21/2017 - 6:02pm

As citizen in a highly gerrymandered district, I would be thrilled to have even a chance at representation. Gerrymandering brings out the worst candidates, extremists and people MORE tied to Michigan's secret pac groups than to constituents they actually choose when gerrymandering by drawing lines to choose their voters.

Sun, 10/22/2017 - 8:22pm

How does 'gerrymandering' bring out any different candidates than those districts that have had a high Party registration independent of 'gerrymandering' listening to people who have lived their whole live in my district explain how the district has always been Democratic and high union influence, I grew up in a similar district and there were good and disappointing candidates [no 'stars'] in either district.

Time and again there are elections that show how money doesn't buy votes, people simply vote the way they want to. If you doubt that how was the vote on the last state vote on road taxes, especially when you compare the overwhelming disparity of campaign money for the added spending.
'Gerrymandering' is an issue of the past. With today's open primaries that allows anyone to vote in which ever Party primary they want Party loyalty is significantly dampened.

If you want to diminish the impact of campaign spending become part of a conversation to develop a set of criteria for assessing candidates that all voters can use and replace the emotional choosing with pertinent information voter selection.

Mon, 10/23/2017 - 2:30pm

Duane: If you're so sure gerrymandering is "an issue of the past," why not open up the process to be more transparent and put a stop to the "worst-of-all-worlds" scenario we currently have in Michigan? By 'worst of all worlds,' I mean that the process is 100% secretive and 100% controlled by partisan insiders with everything to gain by keeping the current system in place, and everything to lose by changing it to an independent citizens' redistricting commission.
Again and again I see folks defending the status quo by insisting that gerrymandering "isn't really happening" in Michigan. If that is indeed the case, then opening up the process to the light of day wouldn't be seen as such a threat. If "Democrats gerrymander themselves by living in urban areas," then switching to the independent commission wouldn't really change election outcomes very much. But the whataboutist solution is ALWAYS to leave things just as they are, which - sorry - is gerrymandered for partisan purposes. The people of Michigan are being sold a bill of goods by the "Let's keep things exactly as they are" crowd.

Tue, 10/24/2017 - 11:22pm


When you describe to me the physical harm, be specific not esoteric, that has been done by 'gerrymandering' and how this change in the redistrict scheme will prevent or remedy that harm then the effort for this proposal will make some sense and could justify support. But to simply change for change sake or because you can is the wrong reason for change and is likely to create unintended consequences.

It is of the past since anyone can vote in any partisan primary even if they have never been a member or affiliated with that Party.
Why are you bring up what others say about 'gerrymandering' when I have been open in saying that 'gerrymandering' has been an active partisan tool for over 200 years and in Michigan since its inception. I simply say that it is no longer as effective as it was only a few decades ago.

It is interesting to hear claims of 'transparency' as something the new system will provide, when we have even had transparency describe. Simply because something is claimed to be open doesn't mean it is transparent. I wonder what proposal language will ensure 'transparency' and prevent people from manipulating the new system. My skepticism is fully engaged when anyone claims transparency will be achieve with some political remedy. I have yet to hear anyone even try to describe how 'transparency' will be made integral to the system and will be regularly verified [for without verification drift is natural]. If there is something that is instinctive in humans it is the tendency to manipulate the environment you are in, you can see it in any two year old, in any politician of any age, in any of use depending on the situation, even those in a war zone or on a football field try to manipulate events and systems.

I believe that we live in a dynamic world and we should always be influx, making change a integral to our culture. By the same token, I do not think change should be done simply because it is change or that change can be done.

The first flaw in you rationale it that partisanship is wrong or harmful, the reality is that a common denominator of Party allows people to come together to establish principles and practices they align with so they don't have to be re-establishing them on each issue. If everyone is an independent and have earn their seat at the 'table' based on that independence than each time they meet with others they will have to demonstrate that independence before any effort to find common ground can be found. You can see that in the fragmentation we are watching in the current Parties [it is most glaring in Washington], on every issue you see [especially at the extreme ends] people making sure that their political label of 'liberal' or 'progressive' or 'conservative' are out front before any talk of solving the problem begins. Historically the two Parties had been branded and all knew what that implied so there was no need to waste time on restating it to prove to their supporters who they were. Today, you can see it becoming personal political branding even when there is no issue and there is only an open microphone.

If anything 'gerrymandering' is at least one illusion that either Party can strive for to justify keeping their Party together. Without that why even have parties let it be all independents spending all their efforts for individual branding leaving no time or energy for actually addressing issues and accept there will no time for delivering results.

Julie Ortiz
Mon, 10/23/2017 - 3:53pm

Duane~Gerrymandering allows "representatives" to win campaigns that they really did not win. Therefore, they are not representing the majority of their constituents. Gerrymandering is alive and well and it is not in the best interest of the citizens! Example-The Michigan legislature just voted for a bill to allow more dark money in their campaign process. As the Michigan Campaign Finance Network explained, the bill weakens Michigan's long-standing campaign contributions limits. More money will be in Michigan campaigns and in Super PACs. According to the Center for Public Integrity, Michigan already ranks 50th for a grade of "F" in integrity. This goes hand in hand with gerrymandering and the citizens are tired of being swept under the rug.

“(Districts are) not random chance,” said Grand Valley State University political science professor Erika King. “It’s very carefully done. It’s not unique to Michigan or to one malign political party. If you are the party in power, it’s what you do."
She noted the 2014 race for state Senate in Michigan, where Republicans barely topped Democrats in total votes but claimed 27 out of 38 seats. In 2016, Republicans beat Democrats by just 1 percent in total votes for Congress yet won nine out 14 seats. Also, if you really believe what you said, then why are you even concerned about it.
You should also sign the petition! Everyone should want to sign this non partisan petition!

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 11:00pm

Are you suggesting that within a 'gerrymandered' district that there are votes not counted or that there are people within the district that weren't allowed to vote preventing the majority to voice their choice? I admit there are very few elections where the majority of potential voters in any district turn out to vote, but in recent years I haven't even hear a rumor that voters who chose to voter were denied voting in the district their official residence was or that votes were not counted.
As for the campaign spending, it will surely rise until there is a means for voters to make informed assessments of candidates rather than have to rely on campaign and parties that pay for fabricated 'dossiers' to be create to smear their opponents. You offer a list of knowledge and skills a candidate should have to be an effective office holder and we can develop the means for voter to become so well informed that all campaign money you worry about will no longer be spent.
I think the professor Erika King gives too much credit to those people behind closed doors. In any case, I keep asking and yet to have anyone even attempt to answer, what physical, measurable harm has 'gerrymandering' done and how will the proposed scheme rectify that harm?
As for the voting, you seem to feel all Republicans vote for Republicans, all Democrats vote for Democrats, and totally care anything about independents. How do you explain that if the Democrats so dominate the voting and are so blindly loyal that the state wide elected state officials are Republican [which are not affected by any redistricting].
I oppose this proposal because no one has yet to explain how this new scheme will improve the quality of candidates, will improve the quality of elected officials [that they so distain because they are Party affiliated], how this will change the governing in Lansing, how it will make government programs more effective and generate better results. Can you tell me what change this new scheme will make in Lansing; can you guarantee this scheme will change the quality of state government or federal government? If not then all of this is about change for change sack with no regard or consideration of unintended consequences. And if you hesitate when thinking about this realize that no one not Mr. Power [an active supporter], not any petition carrier, and not any one has even tried to address these issues.
I do appreciate you willingness to challenge me, but without someone making a case on about government and how the scheme will make it better I can only worry about how little thought and how much emotion is driving politics in Michigan.

mary peterson
Fri, 03/16/2018 - 11:23pm

Maybe my district wouldn't look like a dragon. Repubs can't bear the thought that elections could be competitive. They might actually have to earn their seat.