Editor’s Note: Rishel is a 1954 graduate of Vicksburg High School who spent many years teaching political science at Macomb Community College. He and his wife, Barb, own a bed and breakfast in Traverse City; he writes a blog about politics. This article refers to Proposal 2 on the statewide Nov. 6 ballot.
By Hank Rishel
In 1812, Elbridge Gerry, a former Constitutional Convention delegate, while governor of Massachusetts adjusted the state’s senate district boundaries so that one looked like a giant salamander. Adjusting district boundaries to gain a political advantage became known as “gerrymandering”.
After 206 years, gerrymandering is alive and well.
Like every other state, Michigan is assigned a number of members of the U.S. House of Representatives based on its total population including children and non-citizens. Our share is 14. After each national census the Congressional districts and state legislative districts must be redrawn so that their populations are absolutely equal. In Michigan as in most states, the majority party in the legislature really ends up determining district boundaries. The next redrawing will be done by November 2022, after the 2020 census.
What really happens here is that the majority – currently the Republicans – draws up a plan that works to its advantage, usually by cramming as many of the other party’s voters into as few districts as it can. The goal is to create as many districts as possible with safe Republican majorities. Democrat members also create a boundary plan designed to give them as many districts as possible. It isn’t that hard for either party to do. It is all done with computers now. There are programs available that tell legislators how many people are added if they move a district boundary ten feet over. Finally, the whole state legislature votes on the two plans but, with a party line vote, the majority party’s plan will always be chosen.
Once one party draws the boundaries to give it an advantage, the minority party may find it almost impossible to gain a state legislative majority even if it has more actual voters. As a result, several states have moved to alternative systems. In California, under Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the right to redraw districts was turned over to a panel of retired judges. Michigan is famously gerrymandered; see the Detroit area. Proposal 2 on the Nov. 6 ballot is an attempt in Michigan to make redistricting more truly democratic. A yes vote would put boundary drawing in the hands of a 13-member Independent Redistricting Commission. Four members would identify with the Democratic Party, four with the Republican Party and five would be “independent”. A very complex process open to public scrutiny would winnow a very large number of applicants down to the thirteen ordinary citizens who would be officially selected by the Secretary of State.
Advocates would argue that forcing people from both parties to deal more publicly with one plan should result in districting that is more fair. Opponents will suggest that the plan is too vague, could be manipulated by a party aligned Secretary of State, and would result in expensive lawsuits. It is clear that the current system gives an unfair advantage to a legislative majority.
Whether this is an acceptable alternative, the voters must decide.