The nice lady at the local farmers market approached me over the weekend. "Won't you sign our petition against gerrymandering?”
"Voters should choose their politicians, not the other way around," she said.
She was collecting signatures to put a constitutional amendment on the Michigan ballot in November 2018 that would create an "Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission" and give it, not the state legislature, the power to set congressional and legislative redistricting boundaries.
"Voters, not Politicians" is working to gather 315,654 registered voter signatures within a 180-day window, the minimum number of signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot. Because of inevitable errors and duplications in the signature-gathering process, the real number they’ll need is probably closer to 400,000 ‒ not easy to achieve, even with enthusiastic volunteer circulators.
What they want to eliminate is gerrymandering, the classic device politicians have been using for years and years to stack the deck to favor one political party over the other.
Like the old Ella Fitzgerald song "Let's Fall In Love,” Democrats do it; Republicans do it – every party, given half a chance, does it.
The usual outcomes in extreme cases combine to make up the worst of all possible worlds: Hyperpartisanship, corruption, arrogance and incompetence. And that’s pretty much what we have in today’s Michigan. Most of our districts are stacked so only one side can win, meaning that office-holders don't have to care about those who didn’t support them, making these residents, in effect voiceless minorities.
Republicans were completely in charge of redistricting in Michigan the last time it was done ‒ and the disproportionality in electoral results becomes clear when you look at the voting statistics.
GOP legislators in 2011 erected one of the nation's most effective gerrymandering systems. In 2012, although Democrats polled 52 percent of the votes, they won but 46 percent of contested state House of Representative seats. Two years later it was 51 percent of Dem votes for state House, but only 43 percent of seats.
Two years later, in 2016, the figures were almost identical; 50 percent and 43 percent. As for the U.S. Congress, Democrats have had an actual plurality of the vote in several recent elections – but have never won more than 36 percent of the seats: five of 14.
While all this has been going on, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Gill v. Whitford, a gerrymandering case from Wisconsin, where a federal judge held the new maps adopted by the Republican-led legislature in that state were "intended to burden the representational rights of Democratic voters ... by impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats."
Wisconsin appealed, and oral arguments will be presented before the high court in Washington today. (Tuesday Oct. 3.)
Should the Supreme Court rule against Wisconsin, it could lead to a profound upheaval in both political parties’ ability to act out their parochial and selfish political impulses.
That probably won’t have a practical effect until after the 2020 census, which, like every census, will shape and reshape the politics of our country by reshaping federal, state and local elective districts.
Most people I've talked with share a profound distaste for gerrymandering and its democracy-destroying results.
Beyond that, I don't have a dog in the fight.
Whether the “Voters, Not Politicians” solution of an independent redistricting commission will work, I simply don't know. Some states – Iowa being a nearby example – reportedly have had a good experience. Some critics say assuming the political system can be fended off by an "independent" commission is naïve.
Others say a better solution is the so-called "jungle primary," a system that pits the top two primary election vote-getters against each other in the general election, regardless of party.
That way, each candidate is forced to appeal to independents, moderates and ticket-splitting voters from the other side, thereby reducing the appeal of hyper-partisan extremism.
Because the issue of how to improve the workings of our political system should be at the core of the political debate in next year's election, it's important we have a robust discussion about this issue – and I encourage Bridge readers to have at it. Our magazine is eager to run your opinions and arguments. Just send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
I expect to be fascinated by the range of creative thinking and the possibility that an informed citizenry may, just may, thereby have an effect on the ways in which electoral policy is formed.