Iowa, California offer ideas on how to fix gerrymandering

If we’re going to save America from repeated near-disasters like this month’s war over the government shutdown and the near-default on our debt, we’ve got to have an urgent conversation about gerrymandering, both in Michigan and the entire nation.

Here’s why.

The practice of “gerrymandering” -- drawing congressional and legislative districts to favor one political party or the other -- is at the core of our deeply dysfunctional and hyper-partisan political system that produced the shutdown and nearly resulted in default.

Virtually all the Tea Party-backed, hard-right congressional representatives who provoked the recent crisis are from districts so heavily gerrymandered Republican that they’re in virtually no danger of voter backlash in a general election. If an incumbent’s seat is gerrymandered safe, there’s no political downside to adopting whatever radical ideology is fashionable at the moment.

Indeed, it could be a political plus, if it inoculates you against a primary challenge from someone even further right. Gerrymandering is an ancient and widespread institution, long used by politicians to protect incumbent politicians of both political parties.

These days it has been coupled with its enabling cousin, the partisan primary election, to contort our politics into hyperpartisan gridlock. Primaries provide the political leverage in a gerrymandered district so that the only election that counts is the primary.

What this means, for example, is that primary turnout is often low -- usually about 15 to 20 percent of eligible voters -- and comes mainly from fiercely partisan members of the party’s base -- Republican or Democratic.

So if you’re a Republican candidate in a gerrymandered district, it makes political sense to be right-wing; Democrats in the same circumstances tend to pander to organized labor and left-wing groups. Politicians on both sides win the primaries by appealing to their partisan base, and the general elections are a shoo-in.

Most experts agree there are very few truly competitive congressional districts in America, perhaps as few as 40 out of a total of 435. According to Michigan Congressman John Dingell, (D-Dearborn) the longest-serving member in history, gerrymandering represents a big part of what happened in Washington over the past few weeks. “Some of the Republican members form heavily gerrymandered districts have nothing to fear from voters in a general election; everything is determined by the primary,” he told me.

Richard McLellan, a heavy-duty Republican if ever there was one, agrees. So does Mark Grebner, head of Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing and one of the smartest political thinkers in this state. In Michigan, he counts as gerrymandered Republican at least three congressional districts, four or five state senate seats and at least 10 state house districts.

The only good thing emerging from the recent mess in Washington is a new realization of and focus on the malign influence of gerrymandering on American politics.

But the more essential and complicated question is what to do about it. Many urge we take the drawing of district lines out of the hands of politicians (usually state legislators) and give the job to independent nonpartisan folks like retired judges.

This is the system adopted in Iowa, where there is some evidence it has reduced overt partisanship in drawing lines. Maybe so, but I still think it’s naïve to believe you can ever totally take politics out of redistricting, the most political act of all.

Grebner proposes a similar alternative: Pass a redistricting law that prohibits any political considerations in drawing congressional or legislative districts. “Put criminal penalties on violations,” Grebner says, while also admitting the idea is pretty radical. And I’m not sure how a jury will decide what constitutes a “political consideration.”

Another possibility would be to adopt the “open primary” system, in which candidates for office run in primary elections just as they do now, but in which the two top vote getters – whether a Republican and a Democrat, or both Republicans, or both Democrats -- run against each other in the fall general election.

That way, both candidates wanting to maximize their total vote would have compelling political reasons to reach beyond their narrow base to members of the other party or Independents. This system is under trial in California, where it’s resulted in the defeat of two liberal congressmen who didn’t reach beyond the Democratic base.

Let’s not beat around the bush. Unless we cut the cancer of gerrymandering out of the core of our political system, our days as a great nation are numbered, doomed by a dysfunctional, hyper-partisan and crisis-prone politics. We need a serious conversation about reforming this practice, and it needs to start right now.

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Eunice Burns
Mon, 10/28/2013 - 12:10pm
We are supposedly a democracy. Yet the outcome of an election is preordained by the way a district is drawn (and either by Republicans or Democrats). I would like to see tried, at least, a system of nonpartisan groups who have no access to voting records. Geography and population as a basis???? Maybe then we could have some good debates instead of seeing how much dirt we can dig up on the opponent.
Mon, 10/28/2013 - 10:07pm
I agree with every word. We know what needs to be done, but not how to do it. There is just no way that partisans are going to fix this partisan created problem. It won't be fixed by our legislature. Nor will it be fixed by either party. A ballot initiative is needed, but what organization is going to initiate it?
Tue, 10/29/2013 - 8:37am
Your article talks of gerrymandering as the root of the problem, but then goes on to say it was resolved in California by having open primaries. You seem to imply that open primaries will produce a Republican or Democrat candidate, and make no mention of a third party or perhaps even an independent. I believe that open primaries are the answer. Or if you really wanted to stop gerrymandering, insist that all districts have straight line sides and 90 degree inclusive angles except where state/county/local boundaries are involved depending on which district you were choosing. Just look at the counties in Michigan. They are mostly rectangular. A freshman engineering student could produce boundaries for 15 US House seats, or 38 MI Senate seats.
Tue, 10/29/2013 - 9:30am
If we can fix either gerrymandering or partisan primaries, we should fix the second. Even districts not intentionally tilted often have a partisan tilt and primaries with light turnouts can still turn out wacky nominees, as several recent US Senate races have shown. Nonpartisan primaries would encourage candidates to seek the middle ground, bring out independents, and undercut the rationale for gerrymandering. This change would take a statewide ballot initiative and so a lot of work and local organization because the most critical voters are those most turned off to the political parties.
Barry Visel
Tue, 10/29/2013 - 10:18am
I'm glad you included the "open primary" issue in this piece. I think that's more of the problem than gerrymandering. Rich,I like your idea for creating district boundaries.
Robert L
Tue, 10/29/2013 - 11:15am
Unless this addressed (gerrymandering) we are dooming our parties to successive generations of political inbreeding. That "model" is the very same thinking which caused the genetic extinction of the Spanish Habsburg's monarchy. The quest for "purity" cuts the ideological gene pool to the point that it's a functional mess incapable of adapting or evolving. Adaptation and evolution are critical for any organism (biological or social) to thrive, much less survive.
Tue, 10/29/2013 - 12:10pm
I disagree with the doom and gloom of the last paragraph; the Founders *wanted* the Congress to be inefficient, and if you agree with Tom Jefferson that "that government is best which governs least" then gridlock is not in itself necessarily a bad thing. The rest of the article is spot on, though -- as is the comment from Rich above about the added benefit of open primaries in making third-party candidates more viable. Michigan law already requires legislative boundaries to be drawn chiefly along county lines, and along township and city lines when counties must be split. And yet we wind up with such silliness as the House 32nd, 76th, 81st, 91st and 94th, and very few truly competitive districts. Open primaries would be much simpler to implement and would give us more candidates who play between the 40s where most of the rest of us are.
Dan B.
Tue, 10/29/2013 - 1:17pm
Phil - You're only partly correct. Agreed: Gerrymandering is bad. However, your fascination with non-partisan districting commissions may be in error. If the whole purpose of district-drawing is to achieve legislative bodies that are representative of the electorate, the California experiment does not pass the test. What would constitute a representative State Assembly in California? Or, a representative delegation sent to Congress? I would suggest that those bodies might be divided between Democrats and Republicans in proportions reflecting the overall split between those parties in the general election. In the 2012 election it appears that Democrats received roughly 61 percent of the vote. Obama received 60.7 percent of the presidential vote and, state-wide, Democratic candidates for Congress received just under 62 percent of the total vote. This would suggest that proper and appropriate representation in those two bodies might consist of something in the neighborhood of 61 percent of the seats. Did that happen as a result of California's open primary and non-partisan redistricting? The answer is clearly "NO". In fact, Democrats got almost 72 percent of the congressional delegation seats and 67.5 percent of the State Assembly seats. Clearly, the Democratic/Republican split is these two delegations is demonstrably worse than the D/R split in the nationwide vote for Congress. This is not to defend the results of the national election for Congress. Gerrymandering must be eliminated. However, what's fair for one side has to be fair for the other. If gerrymandering favors Republicans and the Tea Party, something equally as non-representative favored the Democrats in California. Final note: Phil, you also reflect the current fascination for wanting competitive districts. If true representation is what you want, competitive district is not the answer. In a highly competitive district, just under one-half of those voting end up to be not represented in the resulting body. Hell, I think it's bad enough in my state representative district that, while Democrats tend to receive 40 to 45 percent of the vote, Democrats perennially are unrepresented in Lansing. There's got to be a better way. I wish you'd go back and read what you advocated about representation a number of years ago.
Tue, 10/29/2013 - 9:39pm
It is interesting how Mr. Power has an answer to a problem that he is yet to define. He has even enlisted Congressman Dingell whose long career has quite probably been extended through 'gerrymandering'. Mr. Power seems to feel that ‘gerrymandering’ has only recently become a problem. My guess is he must have missed that day in high school when they taught about ‘gerrymandering’ since it seems his concerns are centered on 2010 elections results. Aside from Mr. Power’s apparent dislike of the ‘grassroots’ politics that spawned the “Tea Party’ movement I am not clear on what the problem is with ‘gerrymandering’ is. As best I can tell, it doesn’t prevent people from casting a secret ballots, it doesn’t change the voting laws within any district to prevent individual voter choices, it doesn’t control or alter campaigning. I don’t understand what problem it is. Oh, except that seems Mr. Power doesn’t like opposition to his political views. Mr. Power is so upset with the current Republicans in office that he even wants to undermine the two party system by taking away the right of Party faithful selecting their own candidates in partisan primaries. All this article seems to be is Mr. Power using his Bridge ‘pulpit’ to lobby for a change in practices, that seem to have served the Democrats well when they were in control, so Republicans won’t have the same access. I would like to read some Mr. Power’s editorials on ending ‘gerrymandering’ from years past, maybe from the 80s or earlier. I wonder if any of those Congressman Dingell ever had his district ‘gerrymandered’, I wonder if he ever had election support by a ‘grassroots’ group take him into office. Would the UAW be on par with the ‘Tea Party’ or are the a special interest group?
Mike R
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 2:32pm
Duane, you can't dismiss the problem by attacking Phil Power and out-of-context portions of his writing while ignoring the rest of it and his clear overall message. There is no hint of partisanship in this column; he very specifically derides both major parties for their use of gerrymandering. Simply refusing to acknowledge a problem doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I think the most interesting message to be gleaned from this discussion is the fact that nearly everyone in it agrees that gerrymandering and/or closed primaries are an evil. I don't think I've ever seen such consensus since Bridge began publishing.
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 4:08pm
Mike, Did anywhere in my comments I say that I believed in 'gerrrymandering' or is that something you presumed since I didn't start by lauding Mr. Power and his writings? I simply took exception with the way he presented the issue, which it seems you have no concern with as long as it promotes you view. Mr. Power's approach was not about how 'gerrymandering' has distorted the make up of the lesgilative bodies for generations or about how it has effectively kept people in those offices to a point of corrupting the system. Mr. Power simply use it as a means of attacking those with a political point of view that differs from his. Mr. Power's implied that it was the "tea party' people that have created the protection of those they support though 'gerrymandering' while ignoring not only those Congressmen from Michigan that have been similarly protect for years or that 'gerrymander' districts kept Democratic Congressmen in office so they could vote for Obamacare that set up the current conflict in DC. Rather than attack partisan politics when it is convinient and attack 'gerrymandering' when it is convinient, or to frame it to look like it is only misused by those with views differing from yours, I have since I learn about it in my high school days begin against it. Mr. Power gave as his reason to end 'gerrymandering' is that it 'protects' certian districts and particualr politicians, if he truly believe that it applies to both parties he seems to have omitted that. It seems that Mr. Power has a political agenda that he is not willing to be forth right on and that is what I take issue with. I believe politicians stay to long in office so I would like to see 'gerrymandering' end for all. Based on that belief I also support term limits. If you oppose 'gerrymandering', do you support term limits? If not why not they seem serve the same end? Mr. Power opposes 'gerrymandering', at least as it applies to Republicans, does he also support term limits (it would be another means to remove another layer of political protection for all office holders)? "...gerrymandering and/or closed primaries are an evil." I disagree, I don't believe an inanimate object or a legal protocal is 'evil'. I believe people who manipulate systems and object can be 'evil', and that there is no party or group or point of view that is exempt from having such people.
Mike R
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 4:29pm
Wow. That was, uh, stunning.
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 6:23pm
Which means nothing, if it doesn't make sense? if you still think I was challenging Mr. Power's position? if you still think that I support 'gerrymandering'? if you feel that Mr. Power had made a fair and balance case for his postion? I forgot to mention your view, " I don’t think I’ve ever seen such consensus since Bridge began publishing." People can become over confident on how they see things when they aren't challenged. My experience is that it is better to have conflict and competition of ideas than it is to have consensus. I learned a long time ago that it is difficult to encourage open discussion and very easy to discourage and even stop differing views. We had the 'silent majority', they simply didn't speak out, now we have the 'tea party', something that grew out of grassroots frustration and what does Mr. Power do? He attacks them and their involvement with politics, he is simply trying to discourage opposing ideas, while ignoring the special interest groups that support his views. You maybe impressed by the the supportive comments, I am depressed because there are no alternative views to think about. It is like Mr. Power wants to be on a championship team, but doesn't want there to be a competitive team to play. The issue of 'gerrymandering' would have better served if Mr. Power would have made the case about it has distorted our Congress over generations, showing its manipulation by each Party in power, rather than to simply use it as a means of attacking those who political ideas he disagrees with.
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 7:53pm
Very thoughtful and constructive points! I was quite embarrassed when the Maryland legislature (where I live now, controlled primarily by Democrats) played this game. The excuse was that it was needed to counter the GoP in Texas (which set a new low when it undertook re-districting between censuses) and elsewhere, but I agree that we all need to move to non-partisan approaches. I'm very interested in the example from California. Another possibility might be to use some kind of computer algorithm that uses block-level census data, starting in the NE (or SE or SW or NW) corner of a stated and makes regular polygon-shaped districts (maybe taking into account rivers, etc.) without any human input. So the next question is: how do we make this happen? This needs to be pushed within each state, if not by the state legislature, then by voter referendum.
Jackie Coolidge
Wed, 10/30/2013 - 8:02pm
Here's another idea: At some point in the 1960s, in order to thwart some of the old southern Dixicrats who wanted to apportion US House representatives as a block on a winner-take-all basis in some of their states, the US Congress legislated a requirement for single-representative districts. However, there is a third possibility (which is a good thing we do for the state legislature in Maryland, from each county): US congressional House delegations for each state elected on the basis of proportional representation within the entire state. The goal would be to ensure that the representatives of a state in the House of Representatives in Washington would reflect the party distribution in the state. For example, if there are 10 House seats, and the state has about 60% Democrats and 40% Republicans, then the state would send 6 Dems and 4 GoP to the US House (e.g., based on party lists and state-wide campaigns). This would require fresh legislation in the US congress, though, so I would not hold my breath.
Sandra McClennen
Sun, 11/03/2013 - 11:28am
The League of Women Voters of Michigan held extensive discussions on the question of representative districts vs. gerrymandering. Here is where the position statement can be found: a series of presentations, one option is to use a computer program already developed that takes information regarding municipal and county lines, population, etc., and draws districts that are free of political considerations. I urge The Bridge to read the extensive information collected by League of Women Voters of Michigan, summarize and report on it.
Matt Messer
Mon, 11/04/2013 - 6:26am
How to fix the problem is not just about the 2 political parties. You also have the Federal Judicial system involved in rulings to protect the minority vote. How do you reconcile this issue in highly segregated areas? Politics need to be taken out, that is a given, but if the court orders boundries drawn on the basis of race, how do you fix that?
tom pinta
Mon, 11/04/2013 - 7:12pm
I'm in complete agreement and have been aware of the problem for some time now. But what to do? How to proceed? Those who are in position to correct the situation (our state politicians) are the least likely to do so. Both major parties have played the game over the years and only complain when in the minority.
Tue, 11/05/2013 - 3:41pm
Great article; whether there is agreement or disagreement, at least Phil began the conversation which is a good place to start. I agree that policy makers will be very reluctant to make this happen so unless voters begin to care on a large scale, a referendum will be a steep uphill climb. Citizens have to realize the predicament we are in - much more globally than this article - and be invested enough to do something about it. After all, Congress is NOT the government - the Citizens are; it is our democracy and we have to care about it.
Ivan Dzombak
Tue, 11/19/2013 - 10:55pm
I have a suggestion on how to fix the gerrymandering problem. In this day and age, I suspect that the government (federal or state) must have access to quite detailed information regarding population distribution across the state of Michigan. It seems to me that it ought to be possible to create districts in a completely apolitical -- perhaps even automated -- manner, by dividing the total voting population by the number of districts, then carving out polygons (rectangles, more or less) with approximately the computed number of voters for each district. For example, assuming 4 million voters and 15 districts, 267,000 voters would be allocated per district. Of course, this would require software with basic rules for generating the polygons based on population density data, taking into account county and township boundaries, et cetera. It wouldn't be a trivial undertaking, and I'm sure that some people would grouse about the results. However, it it were completely automated, with a publicly-published, agreed-upon algorithm, then it seems that few could argue with the results. This all assumes that the aforementioned population data are available, which may or may not be the case. I'm sure this would be an excellent thesis project for some UM grad students in the CS department :-) Best regards, Ivan Dzombak Pinckney, MI