Voters shut out on redistricting

(Originally published June 29, 2011)

Every decade, the law requires every state to redraw every legislative and congressional district to reflect changes in population discovered by the Census.

The cycle’s process is about at its end, with maps for both Congress and Michigan's Senate and House districts now being rushed through the Legislature before its summer break.

But if you think this is good government at work, think again. Both the process and this year’s result are, well, simply disgusting.

This is nothing very new. Time after time, the major parties have controlled reapportionment, cutting deals in secret, carving out weirdly-shaped, gerrymandered districts designed to protect incumbents and secure partisan advantage.

This time is different only in that Republicans control everything -- both houses of the Legislature, the governorship and the Michigan Supreme Court. That means they don’t need to make any compromises. This time, they are in a position to jam their maps down the throats of Democrats … and, more important, the public.

What that means, among other things, is that a large number of voters are out of luck. A study of redistricting by the Center for Michigan this February concluded that, over the past decade, “Republicans living in safe Democratic districts and Democrats living in safe Republican districts were essentially disenfranchised – and accounted for almost 1.5 million votes in the 2010 statewide elections. Add to them the significant proportion of statewide voters who label themselves independents, and it’s easy to see that in many places voters’ realistic choices at the polls are severely limited.”

Limited, that is, because most of these districts have been drawn to ensure the same partywill always win them, no matter what. Thanks to population shifts, Michigan once again will lose a seat in Congress next year. Since the Republicans are in control, you knew before the process started they’d eliminate a Democratic seat.

And that’s precisely what happened. Two current Democratic congressmen – Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township and Sandy Levin of Royal Oak – have been reapportioned into the same district.

Other districts are ridiculously configured, with one (the 14th, now held by John Conyers) beginning in Grosse Pointe, proceeding through Hamtramck and parts of Detroit and slithering into Oakland County all the way to Sylvan Lake.

The process of redrawing legislative districts was less blatantly partisan, according to Public Sector Consultants expert Jeff Williams: “There were clearly choices that benefit sitting Republican members, but there were other choices that left alone … Democratic seats.” The people left without choices were the voters.

A key figure in charge of this year’s process was State Rep. Pete Lund, R-Shelby Township. The work was carried out in secret, with no real input whatsoever from the public. True, Lund’s committee held a few public hearings, designed for window dressing. But the real work was done in the back room, with Republican experts pouring over maps, using fancy computer programs that can finely slice and dice voter choices. Nobody knows what trade-offs were made, what deals were cut, who did what to whom and why. In effect, the political class sends us the same message about redistricting decade after decade: “It’s ours; don’t interfere, you pushy citizens.”

People are clearly disgusted by this. A whopping 82 percent of attendees at recent community gatherings said they have “no trust” in politicians drawing their own district boundaries. Another 55 percent felt results in Michigan legislative races are largely decided before they even vote. The gatherings were sponsored by the Center for Michigan and held this spring in five representative communities across the state.

The obviously unfair and secret process we follow contributes to citizen alienation about the democratic process itself. Study after study concludes that citizens who feel themselves shut out of the process are less likely to vote or participate in the political process.

What they are likely to do is engage in baseless and dangers conspiracy thinking, most vividly recently illustrated by “birthers” who believe President Barack Obama was not born a U.S. citizen, despite clear and indisputable evidence that he was born in Hawaii.

There’s got to be a better way. Sixty-three percent of people attending the Center for Michigan meetings felt redistricting would be better done by “a nonpartisan redistricting commission independent of the Legislature.” That’s why an experiment being carried out this year in California is so important. There, an independent panel of citizens was charged to draw the lines for compact, contiguous districts in ways that preserve natural “communities of interest,” such as ethnic groups -- and to ignore political considerations altogether. The commission consists of 14 members picked in a complex process, partly by lottery.

How revolutionary!

As The Economist magazine aptly put it, “Instead of politicians choosing their own voters, voters should choose their own representatives.”

Hopefully, Michigan will find a better way by 2021. It’s not too early for sensible people in both political parties to get together and start looking at how a decade hence to avoid the embarrassing and disgusting redistricting process we’ve been using this time around.

If we’re truly interested in trying to make Michigan a better and more fairly governed state, this would be a great place to start.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at

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