Former Salon.com editor-in-chief David Daley spent a day driving Michigan’s 14th congressional district a few years ago.
The hook-shaped district represented by U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, begins in southwest Detroit, near the coal plant in Zug Island, coils east to the Grosse Pointes, and doubles back over Eight Mile Road to corral Southfield, Farmington Hills, West Bloomfield and Pontiac.
It’s a bizarre map that traverses some of the richest and poorest swaths of southeast Michigan. But from the front seat of his car, Daley said its purpose became clear:
Cram as many Democrats as possible into the district. Putting so many Democrats in one district ensures there aren’t as many others elsewhere, solidifying the state Republicans’ 9-5 hold on U.S. seats.
“My mouth fell open countless times. I was never disappointed,” Daley told Bridge Magazine. “It’s all so completely clear by street level.”
The district is one of the most heavily Democratic in the nation, and Lawrence won re-election in 2016 with nearly 80 percent of the vote.
Daley wrote about the experience in the his 2016 book “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” about the political redistricting process. He is a senior fellow at FairVote, a nonpartisan group dedicated to election reforms.
Bridge Magazine recently spoke to him about Michigan politics, gerrymandering and the Voters Not Politicians ballot measure to create an independent commission to handle the drawing of political districts.
The conversation has been edited for length.
The 14th Congressional District in southeast Michigan is solidly Democratic and stretches from some of the state’s poorest neighborhoods in southwest Detroit to wealthier areas like West Bloomfield. (Photo courtesy of WDET)
Bridge: The Republicans have held a 9-5 congressional edge in Michigan for years. But there’s a suggestion that it could go to 7-7 this year or even fall to the Democrats. Is that evidence against claims of gerrymandering?
Daley: Anyone who says that’s evidence there’s no gerrymandering fundamentally doesn’t understand the power of these maps. If these maps fall in a generational wave, it doesn’t mean the maps don’t matter.
It merely means the maps could not withstand all the chaos and turmoil in our politics since 2016. That’s what it will have taken for these maps to go down. You need Donald Trump. You need the Mueller investigation. You need everything that has been revealed and all the insanity and the politics, and then maybe the House flips?
That to me is a sign of how good these maps are, not how weak they are.
Related Michigan redistricting coverage:
- Jan. 8, 2018: Gerrymandering is dying in Michigan. Of old age. No joke.
- Gerrymandering 101: How voters favor Dems, but GOP keeps Michigan Legislature
- These maps show how Michigan Republicans kept power despite blue wave
- Here’s how Michigan’s redistricting commission would work
- Michigan redistricting ballot language rejects partisan phrasings
- 5 concerns about Michigan’s redistricting proposal and what to make of them
- Michigan ballot issues: What to know about Prop 2 (redistricting)
Bridge: How do you respond to arguments that oddly shaped districts can be explained easily? That they merely reflect city boundaries, demographic changes that saw 200,000 people leave Detroit from 2000 to 2010, and the need to have two of 14 districts provide representation to minorities?
Daley: Political geography is a red herring. It’s a myth. Republicans have made that claim in all the states where the maps are the most extreme: Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin. The courts have evaluated those maps and every time the courts have been clear: Political geography might give Republicans a modest political advantage, but it does not explain the extreme bias in these maps. The same is true in Michigan.
All you have to do is look at 2008 versus 2012. In 2008, when Democratic candidates for state House won more votes, they held control of state House. In 2012, when they won more votes, they didn’t even come close.
Bridge: How much of this is the brilliance of Republicans and how much is this Democrats failing to see what was coming and being ineffective at politics?
Daley: The Democrats fell asleep on political redistricting in 2010 and they’ve been paying the political consequences of it ever since.
Karl Rove laid out the Republican plan in a March 4, 2010 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. He named the states where Republicans would be playing. He explained the strategy. The Democrats just didn’t get the newspaper that day.
I don’t blame the Democrats for not having foresight and imagination not to come up with an audacious plan Republicans designed. After all, Republicans have weaponized gerrymandering and turned oldest political trick in the book into something modern and altogether new.
What I do blame the Democrats for is not being able to play defense even after Karl Rove lays out the playbook. That’s political ineptitude of a large magnitude.
Bridge: Is system savable?
Daley: We need to reform the system if we want to have a functioning democracy. If we do not reform the system, our elections are going to turn into decennial battles over redistricting and have congressmen elected to two-year terms that are essentially 10-year terms. That is not for fair representation.
If we don’t fix this now, it’s going to be lost for another decade. Complete control over redistricting leads to radically unfair districts and that creates an unlevel playing field in a democracy that absolutely requires it.
Bridge: What’s your take on the Voters Not Politicians ballot measure?
Daley: I like it a lot. These commissions get better and better when designers learn from successes and failures elsewhere. California learned a lot from failures of Arizona. And Michigan learned a lot from some of the successes and failures in California.
They’ve designed a really strong system that ensures … you won’t have partisans on commission who have thumbs on scale, and [it] requires people to work together to find a consensus.
The idea that people can’t do this is just wrong. There are a lot of talented people out there and there are plenty of fair-minded, public spirited folks who can serve on these commissions.