Redistricting: How political map-making leaves voters with uncompetitive, pre-determined elections

(Originally published Feb. 10, 2011)

In the past decade, voters decided 664 races for seats in the Michigan Legislature. The majority of those races were never in question. Millions of votes didn’t really matter.

Districts for many state representatives and senators are not competitive. Many seats are engineered for partisan advantage. A consequence is the practical disenfranchisement of many voters. As a result, average voters face an uncomfortable question: are our elections truly representative?

If voters want true competition and choice at the ballot box, they can’t wait until Election Day. Their time for input is now, when the maps are being drawn.

Every 10 years, new Census data is used to draw the district boundaries for state and federal elected officials. In Michigan, the state legislature drives this process. To inform the 2011 Michigan redistricting process that is just getting underway, the Center for Michigan used state elections data to analyze the results of 664 state legislative races since boundaries were last redrawn in 2001.

Download the full report here. What we found:

* Over the past decade, Republicans enjoyed 43 safe seats in the state House and 19 safe seats in the Senate. Democrats had 42 safe seats in the House and 11 safe seats in the Senate. None of those seats ever changed hands between the parties. 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.
*Only about one out of every seven Michigan residents lives in a swing district – politically competitive areas where elections are truly up for grabs. These too rare places are where ticket-splitters and politically moderate voters can have more choices – places where the character and ideas of individual candidates are arguably more likely to carry the day.
In the Michigan House, only 16 of 110 districts are swing seats – they either regularly changed hands between the parties or averaged a 3-percent margin or less over the past decade.

* In the Michigan Senate, only 6 of 38 seats ever changed party hands in the past decade. Only two seats featured consistently close races.

A look inside redistricting

Now it’s true that Detroit is the most Democratic big city in America. And Ottawa County west of Grand Rapids is known as a GOP bastion. But, collectively, Michigan is a purple state – the electorate is pretty evenly split between the two major political parties.

So why are so few seats in the Michigan Legislature regularly up for grabs?

To a large extent, you can blame the redistricting process — what Republican Governors Association (RGA) attorney Ben Ginsberg calls “the great passion play of American politics.”

“There’s emotion, the raw power is high,” he said at a nationwide election forum. “(Consultants) get really jazzed up about the magic and voodoo we can do.”

Much of the process takes place behind closed doors between legislative and party leaders. Few voters follow the machinations.

“There are probably 11 of us out there who are total redistricting junkies,” said Tim Story, an analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). “So this is our time.”

Last time around, in 2001, Michigan Republicans owned the redistricting process thanks to their control of the state House, Senate, the governorship and the state Supreme Court. As this report demonstrates, Republicans fared well under the maps they drew 10 years ago, as expected. Democrats followed a similar playbook, with similarly favorable results, when they had the upper hand in earlier decades.

“Redistricting in Michigan is a political process,” longtime Democratic Party insider Rick Wiener said last month at a redistricting forum in Lansing. “It has been when Democrats controlled it. And it is when Republicans apparently control it.”

Lines also are crafted to help particularly powerful lawmakers and to create as many safe seats as possible for the two major political parties.

“You have a situation where the Legislature is picking their own voters,” said Christina Kuo, Michigan executive director of the good government group, Common Cause.

As always, money is an issue. Fewer competitive seats mean both political parties can better manage political fundraising and advertising.

“Both parties want to spend most of their money at the top of the ticket,” said Bernie Porn, president of the Lansing polling firm EPIC-MRA who worked for Democrats during the 1980s redistricting. “They want to spend money on TV and not worry about spending $250,000 or more on each competitive legislative seat.”

This year, Republicans control every leg of the redistricting stool – just as they did in 2001. Many observers expect a repeat of the last go-round.

One key difference this time is citizen-friendly technology. Thanks to Google maps and a wealth of district population information online, citizens can fiddle around with legislative boundaries in the comfort of their own homes. Even redistricting software used by states is much cheaper than it was a decade ago.

Across the nation, reform-minded groups are sizing up their redistricting processes this year. Beyond Michigan, a number of other states use independent redistricting commissions which are somewhat depoliticized. A handful of states require the competitiveness of districts to be taken into consideration as new boundaries are drawn.

In Michigan, large-scale reforms like those are not likely this year. But there is the possibility for increased transparency and citizen involvement through more public hearings. Those are goals of a new Redistricting Collaborative, of which the Center for Michigan is a member.

“Last time, redistricting was a very closely held thing by leadership within the caucuses,” said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Lansing-based Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), a member of the collaborative. “But it’s not just about political parties and caucuses. It’s about the voters. This is how we’re represented.”

This report is not intended to question the legitimacy of any individual sitting legislator. And, to the average voter, redistricting might seem like the ultimate act of inside baseball. But it’s important to consider that those little lines on little maps dictate big-time political power.

Susan J. Demas co-authored this report.

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