High time for redistricting reform

By Walt Sorg

Every vote counts the same, right?


If you are a Republican in Michigan, your vote counts more than votes from Democrats. Just consider what happened in this fall’s election.

While Barack Obama and Debbie Stabenow won landslide victories in the statewide vote, 54 percent and 59 percent, respectively, Republicans maintained control of the state’s congressional delegation and state House of Representatives.

They did it even though most of us voted for Democrats for Congress and state representative.

No, Republicans didn’t hijack ballot boxes or hold local clerks at gunpoint. They did it through carefully drawn district maps that gave their party a huge advantage on Election Day. It is perfectly legal and has a long history: gerrymandering.

The practice goes back to 1812, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry led a rewrite of boundaries for his state’s senate districts to give his Democratic-Republican party an advantage. The Boston Gazette labeled the partisan tactic “gerrymandering” in honor of the governor and a resulting district that resembled a salamander. Gerrymandering has been with us ever since.

The power of gerrymandering exploded in the early 1980s with the publishing of the first computer spreadsheet program, VisiCalc. I remember the look in the eyes of our mapmakers on the House speaker’s staff back then when VisiCalc arrived. They immediately realized the power it gave them to influence elections. They finally had the tools to scientifically slice-and-dice Michigan in a way that maximized our party’s chances in future elections.

To really exploit gerrymandering, one party has to control the entire redistricting/reapportionment process. In 1981 and 1991, there was split control of state government. But in 2001 and 2011, Republicans had total control. They used it to nearly guarantee GOP domination of the congressional delegation and Legislature.

Thus, the results in the Nov. 6 election were predictable. Michigan voted mostly for Democrats but elected Republicans:


Democrats: 50.3 percent of the vote elected five members of Congress

Republicans: 46.2 percent of the vote elected nine members of Congress

State representatives

Democrats: 53.5 percent of the vote elected 51 members

Republicans: 45.6 percent of the vote elected 59 members

If you eliminate heavily Democratic Wayne County from the calculations, the power of GOP mapmaking is even more pronounced. In state House races, Republicans and Democrats virtually tied in total votes outstate with 49.5 percent each — but the GOP took 51 seats to just 33 for Democrats. Republicans won nine out of 11 outstate congressional districts with just 52 percent of the vote.

Vote totals from 2010 for the state Senate show a similar GOP mapmaking advantage: Republicans won a 68.4 percent “supermajority” of seats with just 54.3 percent of the vote. The outstate advantage: 54.5 percent of the vote was enough to win 25 out of 30 elections.

The process used in Michigan is effectively a secret partisan exercise: Maps are created by private contractors under the direction of the majority party; the plans shown to the public (and minority party) list census tracts; translating that census geek-speak language to city, township and county maps takes days; before the minority finishes translating, the map is approved.

Eleven states have taken redistricting away from their legislatures, turning it over to citizen commissions that are required to operate openly and seek out public input. Most of the commissions are specifically prohibited from using the process to protect incumbents, which is a high priority under Michigan’s totally partisan system.

California’s new process battles partisanship by setting up a multi-step process for selecting commissioners. Anyone wishing to serve submits an application. Those are reviewed by a three-member panel from the nonpartisan California State Auditor’s Office, which creates a pool of 20 Democrats, 20 Republicans and 20 independents. The four legislative leaders jointly reduce the pools to 12 in each group. The state auditor then draws three Democrats, three Republicans and two independents at random. They, in turn, select six more from the pools to form the 14-member commission.

If there is going to be redistricting reform in Michigan, 2013 is the year. With term limits, a map created after the next census in 2021 would impact very few members of the Legislature. Given Michigan’s electoral history, it is impossible to predict which party will have the advantage in 2021 — so lawmakers can think less about partisanship and more about doing the right thing.

Some Republicans will howl that this is a plan to help Democrats win elections.

In reality, it is a plan to create more competitive legislative and congressional districts. Only about 20 of the 110 state House districts are competitive. In most districts, only one political party’s members have a real voice. Redistricting reform will force lawmakers in both parties to focus more on building bipartisan consensus and less on winning primary elections.

(Sorg can be reached at sorg@lansingcitypulse.com)