Phil Power | Michigan’s elections are rigged. Is redistricting proposal the answer?

To put it simply, most of Michigan's elections are rigged by politicians - both Republicans and Democrats, whenever they get the chance - to manipulate the redistricting process. The last time around (in 2011), Republicans and their allies paid $1 million to have a set of redistricting maps drawn to favor GOP candidates for U. S. Congress and the state legislature.

How do we know that?

Bridge Magazine reporting, most recently in late September, found that the Michigan Redistricting Resource Institute "paid $1 million to private GOP consultants to draw congressional districts in 2011 that favored Republicans." The nonprofit group says it is nonpartisan and "committed to raising public awareness about redistricting," but Bridge reporting indicated it was in fact driven by top executives from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

It paid for more than 2,500 hours of mapmaking, legal advice and other consulting work for Michigan's "House and Republican caucuses", according to the group's own invoices and admissions uncovered in a pending federal lawsuit.

This past summer, Bridge unearthed emails from among Republican insiders admitting they were stacking the deck in favor of GOP candidates - in other words, gerrymandering elections.

One, from Jack Daly, chief of staff for then-U.S. Representative Thaddeus McCotter, suggested re-arranging congressional districts to "cram ALL the Dem garbage in Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland and Macomb counties into only four districts” already represented by Democratic lawmakers.

In another, longtime GOP strategist Bob LaBrant wrote in May 2011 that the political map he helped construct provided "options to ensure we have a solid 9-5 (congressional) delegation in 2012 and beyond."

On Nov. 6, Michigan voters will have a chance to change our election redistricting system, which has resulted over the years in gerrymandering, a direct and pernicious assault on a fair, representative democratic voting system.  

A proposed amendment to the state constitution, ballot Proposal 2, would set up an independent citizens commission to take control of the redistricting process from the state legislature and politicians of both parties who have worked for years to tilt the election scales in favor of one side or another.

If passed, the measure would put redistricting decisions in the hands of a 13-member, citizen-led, independent commission. It would establish criteria to guide how the commission would create district maps to govern voting in elections over the next decade.

Partisan gerrymandering has been a key part of the American political system for nearly 200 years.  By drawing maps based on periodic census results, the practice is to pack the opposition's votes into as few districts as possible and to spread one's own voters to guarantee a maximum of "safe" seats.

Michigan's redistricting system is widely recognized as among the most heavily gerrymandered in the country. A citizen group known as Voters Not Politicians gathered more than 400,000 signatures to put the measure on this year's ballot.  If Proposal 2 is rejected, the state legislature would continue to manage future redistricting.

Other states, including Arizona and California, have recently adopted similar changes in their election systems. Although it's early to fully understand what changes have resulted, there is some evidence citizen redistricting commissions have reduced gerrymandering a degree.

To be sure, the proposal is not perfect.

Critics claim it would be expensive, costing the state several million dollars to implement. Republicans opposed to Proposal 2 say it's nothing more than a Democratic attempt to swing elections.

And there is real question about the exact meaning of a portion of the proposal which sets out criteria for drawing maps: "Communities of interest" appears to refer to districts being geographically contiguous and, possibly, demographically similar, but the term is largely undefined.  Inserting language that is open to many differing interpretations into our Constitution could easily lead to confusion and possibly complicated and expensive litigation.

Moreover, the proposal excludes many people from serving on the citizen commission: No one who has been a partisan candidate for local, state or national elected office; any officer or member of the governing body of a local, state or national party; registered lobbyists; employees of the legislature. Any parent, stepparent, child, stepchild or spouse of any of those covered.

A friend who has looked carefully at this proposal writes: "Have we become so jaded by politics that any hint or whiff of political engagement requires us to constitutionally prohibit you from performing this public duty?"

In my view, the evils of gerrymandering are profound. So, too, are the risks of unintended consequences accompanying any far-reaching reform proposal, no matter how well intended.

Ballot proposals are all too often overlooked by many voters, especially when the issues are complex or appear. I urge all conscientious voters to read Bridge's continuing coverage of this issue and make up your own mind as you vote on November 6.

Like what you’re reading in Bridge? Please consider a donation to support our work!

It takes time, money, and hard work to inform Michigan readers and leaders with substantive, in-depth, future-oriented news and analysis. If you value our journalism, please consider a one-time donation or a monthly contribution. It takes just a moment to donate here. Please join the thousands of Bridge readers who are helping grow and sustain our nonprofit, in-depth public service journalism in Michigan.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments

David Waymire
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 8:38am

A friend who has looked carefully at this proposal writes: "Have we become so jaded by politics that any hint or whiff of political engagement requires us to constitutionally prohibit you from performing this public duty?"

Look, you wouldn’t let the quarterback’s dad referee a high school football game...folks would go nuts. So why would you let a partisan politician’s dad draw lines for his son? It’s just common sense that we end all whiffs of conflict of interest. So yes...on Proposal 2. This isn’t an unintended consequence. It’s a desired outcome.

Betsy Riley
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 9:26am

I agree with David. There are SO many ways to serve the public. This is just one option that crops up once every ten years. If you’re a politician’s mom or dad and you want to serve, you can find other ways.

Redistricting is one spot where we CAN’T have partisanship. I’ve run for office—I personally am disqualified. But I fully support this proposal.

Matt
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 11:21am

I think we'd be better off picking people at random than having them apply to be on this commission, just like jury duty. By definition anyone interested in politics enough to apply isn't going to be non-partisan no matter what they tell you! Only needed qualifications is to be able to read a map and basic arithmetic .

Thomas E Graham
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 12:53pm

I am a precinct delegate for the Kalamazoo county GOP, I can't afford to donate money so I donate some time. I get to go to the county convention and nominate local GOP candidates. I was not able to go to the state convention to nominate state wide and national candidates because there were too many delegates. Why is my family and I not able to be a commissioner as long as we state we are Republicans? Why aren't we making sure anyone who donates to a political party, directly or through a union, ineligible? Why not make all government employees including police officers and teachers ineligible? It simply doesn't make sense.

Matt
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 3:51pm

Good points? So an officer from the UAW could be on the commission, claim he's an independent because he voted for Ralph Nader or a Green party candidate in the past, but you can't!!?? This stinks.

David Waymire
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 5:00pm

Thomas, you need to go back and look at the definition of conflict of interest, "a situation in which a person is in a position to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity." Surely you understand why you, as someone who has become an officer of a political party (and delegate is an elected position) cannot participate. And surely you can see that having a close family member act as your surrogate would also be wrong, making it impossible for the commission to act without any suspicion of conflict of interest. I see you have become an active opponent of Proposal 2. Perhaps you can explain why you defend the current system, which is run by politicians, only for the interest of politicians.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 12:37pm

So, explain to me how replacing gerrymandering, with another form of gerrymandering, will solve the problem with gerrymandering?

Todd
Mon, 10/15/2018 - 12:39pm

This ISN'T another form of gerrymandering. You're parroting disinformation, Kevin. Cut it out.

Thomas E Graham
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 1:00pm

Thank you for this opinion piece. It was balanced and fair.
A couple unintended consequences no one is talking about.
1) Michigan has 1 black US representative. After the first maps are drawn under this proposal, the gerrymandering that combined several areas with large black populations will no longer be allowed because compactness will override efforts to create black representation.
2) More competitive districts means campaigns will need more money from special interests, more corruption in elections. You've simply moved the corruption from map drawing to election finance.
3) More competitive districts means more incumbent turnover, which means less seniority in the US congress, harming Michigan's ability to influence federal money appropriation decisions . Michigan will probably lose funding.

David Waymire
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 4:55pm

Thomas:
1. The Voting Rights Act has to be followed today. It will have to be followed under Proposal 2. There will be no difference in Congressional representation of people of color. In fact, it may grow in the state House and Senate. Under the current process, the Hispanic population of Southeast Detroit was cut in two, ensuring less opportunity for that group to be represented.
2. The problem of money in campaigns was driven strongly by Citizens United -- which our current gerrymandered legislature made the law here in Michigan. It has nothing to do with competitive elections.
3. The best way to address undue turnover, if that is really an issue, is to oppose term limits in Lansing. Incumbent turnover will not be a problem if incumbents move to represent their voters...instead of special interests that elect them in primaries, as we see today.
Perhaps most importantly...how can anybody defend our current process, where politicians go behind closed doors to draw lines that benefit themselves, not voters...and which ends up with a state that votes 50-50 for congressional candidates, but sees one party continually win 9-5.

William Deblase
Sun, 10/14/2018 - 8:33am

It would be better to just do voting like the federal government for president election. All county's count as one. And have an electoral college to represent each County.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 10/14/2018 - 5:29pm

Discussing other states' reforms of their procedures for drawing district lines, Mr.Power says, " Although it's early to fully understand what changes have resulted, there is some evidence citizen redistricting commissions have reduced gerrymandering a degree." Suppose that to be the case, or suppose that gerrymandering is totally eliminated. What then? How much will the quality of our governance be improved? As Mr. Power points out, "Partisan gerrymandering has been a key part of the American political system for nearly 200 years. " Over that span of years, this has been a remarkably successful country. The passage of Proposition 2 is not going to make the streets flow with milk and honey, nor will it transform our political culture. The basic values of large groups of our citizens differ too sharply and bitterly for that to occur. That is why Tom Watkins proposal to call upon the leaders elected in November to sit down and reason together in the interest of the state as
a community is, regrettably, not going to make any difference. There is far too much disagreement about what is in our interest.

EricS
Mon, 10/15/2018 - 1:02pm

The way I see it is that we're replacing a known bad with a potential bad. I'm not thrilled with the proposal - frankly I would prefer eliminating State House districts altogether in favor of state-wide elections to allow more voices in Lansing - but at least the proposal has the potential to fix the current problem.

Michael J. DePolo
Mon, 10/15/2018 - 5:47pm

Just when are the media going to stop with practice of attempting to buffer themselves against charges of partisan bias by continually engaging in trotting out false equivalencies of "both sides," "both parties," and "everyone does it"? This piece is a perfect example. Power leads with the obligatory "both Republicans and Democrats," assumedly in order to be fair, but then goes on to cite the numerous instances and means by which the Republican Party has so blatantly rigged Michigan's electoral map that they cannot help but to maintain majorities in Congress and the state senate. That Democrats even have a chance of winning a state house majority this year, given all the work the GOP put into selecting its voters, almost beggars belief.

Gerrymandering on the scale Michigan experienced in 2011 has never been seen before, and it will only get worse if Proposal 2 is rejected and Republicans maintain control of the process. That is why it was worth it to them to hide behind the allegedly non-partisan Michigan Redistricting Resource Institute and why the GOP and allied interests have worked so diligently and at such great cost to defeat this initiative.

So, let's not cower under the bogeyman of "unintended consequences," when the devil we know--the system as it exists now--is worse by orders of magnitude.

Leslie Delemeester
Tue, 10/16/2018 - 12:52pm

Isn’t that rich? Republicans say Democrats are trying to swing elections? The proof is that Republicans did succeed in swinging elections via gerrymandering in 2011 and some Republicans oppose Proposal 2 so they can do it again! Proposal 2 is about making elections fair. Look for yourself at the language in the proposed constitutional amendment! Don’t rely on special interest groups or political parties to interpret it for you.

Leslie Delemeester
Tue, 10/16/2018 - 12:52pm

Isn’t that rich? Republicans say Democrats are trying to swing elections? The proof is that Republicans did succeed in swinging elections via gerrymandering in 2011 and some Republicans oppose Proposal 2 so they can do it again! Proposal 2 is about making elections fair. Look for yourself at the language in the proposed constitutional amendment! Don’t rely on special interest groups or political parties to interpret it for you.