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

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

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

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.

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