LANSING — By all accounts, 2014 was a good election year for Republicans in Michigan. They increased their majority in the Michigan House of Representatives by three seats, now holding 63 to Democrats’ 47. Out of the 14 congressional races, Republicans won nine.
You may assume Republicans across the state received substantially more votes than Democrats.
However, that assumption would be wrong.
Although Republicans won nine of the 14 congressional races, Democrats received about 50,000 more votes out of 3 million cast.
“Any time you look at a result where one party gets more votes and the other party has a large majority in the legislature, it raises concerns whether the legislature is reflecting the sentiment and goals of voters,” said Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor.
How, when vote totals across the state are so closely split, did the election results lead to such overwhelming Republican majorities? Many suggest that the way voting districts are drawn in the state is a major contributor to these results.
The Redistricting Process
Every 10 years, Americans across the country are required by law to fill out their census forms. The main purpose of the census is to determine each state’s population, so the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are properly allocated across the states.
After the census is complete, every state is responsible for redrawing district lines to ensure equal levels of populations across districts.
This may sound like a simple process, but nothing in politics is as simple as it sounds. Michigan is one of more than 30 states in which the state legislature is responsible for redrawing congressional and state voting districts.
Giving legislatures control of district lines often results in what is called gerrymandered districts.
What is gerrymandering?
With the legislature in charge of redrawing district lines, the party in power inevitably attempts to manipulate districts to create a more favorable map for their party in future elections. This practice is known as gerrymandering.
“You’re trying to elect as many people from your party and as few people from the other party,” said Matt Grossmann, political science professor at Michigan State University.
Gerrymandering often results in strangely shaped districts, as politicians draw lines that will maximize their electoral potential.
Effects of gerrymandering
If districts in the state are effectively gerrymandered, political parties can often win a number of seats that is disproportionate to their statewide vote totals.
Despite receiving more votes statewide than their Republican opponents, Democrats only won 47 out of 110 state House races.
In state Senate races, Republicans did receive a majority of votes statewide, coming in at just over 50 percent. Although the vote total across the state was close, Senate Republicans now hold an overwhelming 27-11 majority over Democrats in the chamber.
Another effect of gerrymandering is what’s referred to as majority-minority districts. This happens when district lines are drawn specifically to encompass certain race or ethnic groups, most commonly African-Americans.
Historically, majority-minority districts were designed to increase minority representation in elections. Michigan is an example of the success of these attempts to increase minority representation.
African-Americans make up 14 percent of the state population, and representation in both Congress and the state House and Senate reflects this percentage.
While these districts may lead to more minority representation, politically it creates a problem for Democrats, as these districts tend to vote for Democrats by large margins.
It may not seem like a good thing if you’re a Republican to draw a district that’s clearly going to vote for a Democrat, but that can actually be a great thing, Grossmann said.
“If you can draw a district in Detroit that’s 95 percent Democratic, you can sort of waste Democratic votes in those areas,” Grossmann said. “All the surrounding areas will then be more likely to vote Republican.”
Can legislators effectively gerrymander districts?
To some extent, yes, gerrymandering does work. In the state Senate, Republicans hold a 16-seat majority while splitting the popular vote 50-50, which in part can be attributed to gerrymandered districts.
Other factors include a recent geographic shift across the country which has led to high concentrations of Democratic voters moving into urban areas.
“It’s difficult to figure out what proportion of (Republican’s) advantage was gained through gerrymandering versus just general geography,” Grossmann said.
To what extent gerrymandering is effective is a debate in the political science community. In the short term, gerrymandering has proven to be very effective. In the long term however, the results are less clear.
“They’re really good at drawing a map in 2011 and impacting results in 2012,” Grossmann said. “A map that looks good for Republicans in 2012, might not look so good in 2018.”
In order to maximize congressional seats held, the party in power during the redistricting process will typically attempt to shape districts that give them a small, but reliable demographic advantage, typically in the range of 5 to 10 percent.
While this may seem like a good strategy, it does run some risks.
“These districts might be more vulnerable if there’s a big national shift against your party, or a lot of immigration,” Grossmann said.
While the exact effect that gerrymandering has in politics may be impossible to define, some states have looked at the process as something that can and should be reformed.
Thirty-seven states have redistricting processes similar to Michigan’s, with the state legislature drawing the maps every 10 years, according to Justin Levitt, professor of law at Loyola Law School. In all but five of these states, the governor has veto power over redistricting legislation.
In some states where the state legislature is in control of redistricting — Iowa, Maine, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — there are also advisory commissions that put forward suggestions on where the lines should be drawn.
In some states, the legislature is not involved in the redistricting process at all. For example, California has an independent commission that handles redistricting. Individuals in the commission are not allowed to run for office in the districts they draw. Legislative staff members and lobbyists are also barred from serving on the commission.
While Democrats in Michigan have expressed support for changing the redistricting process, legislative action seems unlikely.
“Due to the way the current system benefits the Republican Party, there’s not much enthusiasm to change it,” Irwin said.
The most feasible way to change the process would be through a state ballot initiative, Irwin said. However, this would be a costly statewide endeavor.
“As a Democrat, what gets me up in the morning is fighting for education, clean air and clean water,” Irwin said. “Redistricting is important and has long-ranging effects, but it’s not about how we fund our schools or fix our roads.”