In 2021, Michigan will re-draw its congressional and state legislative boundaries. The law says each of these geographic tracts of land must contain as equal a number of people as possible. This mandate creates a jigsaw puzzle of irregular shapes across the political map.
For decades, political parties have “gerrymandered” these borders to their own advantage. Technically, it’s illegal for a single party to group its voting base in a specific area, but the practice can be hard to prove. Now, grassroots support is building to place redistricting back in the hands of the people.
On the far northwest side of Lansing lies an interesting right angle. Two, actually. You can’t see them, because they’re imaginary. But if you happen to live, work or vote near the Capital Region International Airport in the vicinity of Waverly Road and Grand River, then you know this point is quite real.
This is the spot where Clinton, Eaton and Ingham counties intersect. It’s also the junction of three Michigan congressional districts: the 4th, 7th and 8th. The place demographers call the Greater Lansing area straddles all three. Yet, not one of its three incumbents -- Republicans John Moolenaar, Mike Bishop and Tim Walberg -- live in or even close to Greater Lansing.
And that’s not by accident.
“That’s inherently unfair to the people of the Greater Lansing area,” says Walt Sorg with the Michigan Election Reform Alliance. “They should be represented by somebody who’s more consistent with the views of the Lansing area.”
MERA is among of a number of groups that wants to see the era of gerrymandering come to an end when Michigan draws its next political map in 2021.
Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing political boundaries to aggregate the voters who back the dominant political party. It’s a technique nearly as old as America itself...and both the donkey and the elephant do it whenever each gets the chance to mark its turf.
In Michigan, Republicans have enjoyed that privilege for the past two election cycles. Sorg says a good example is the 24th state senate district, led by Senator Rick Jones.
“His district now goes over the top of Lansing through Clinton County, then ducks back into Ingham County, once you get past Meridian Township into the Republican northeastern part of Ingham County,” Sorg says. “And as a result, the people who live on one side of Sheridan Road on the north side of Lansing...if they’re on the north side, they’re represented by Rick Jones, if they’re on the south side, they’re represented by (Democrat) Curtis Hertel. They are markedly different philosophically, and I suspect the spread between the two of them is far greater than the spread between neighbors on Sheridan Road.”
Sorg believes gerrymandering polarizes the Michigan legislature and isolates its constituents.
“The Democrats run as liberal as possible, the Republicans run as conservative as possible,” he explains. “The people that are centrist -- which is where Michigan is politically -- are really kind of left out in the cold. And that hurts everybody.”
A recent court case in a neighboring state is fueling hope for some anti-gerrymandering crusaders in Michigan. In November, a federal three judge panel ordered Wisconsin lawmakers to re-map its districts after ruling the process had been overtly partisan.
The decision was a departure from past cases where gerrymandering has been struck down as racially discriminatory. The Wisconsin case could make it all the way to the Supreme Court, whose even split could soon be broken by a conservative Trump nominee.
Still, Sorg says courts are becoming more sympathetic to such lawsuits.
“The Arizona redistricting plan, which is a citizens commission, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a 5-4 vote, but it was upheld. (The court) said that the people do have the power to do redistricting independent of the legislature.”
Sorg’s group, the Michigan Election Reform Alliance, and the League of Women Voters of Michigan will hold a public forum about gerrymandering Sunday afternoon at East Lansing High School. Beyond that, Sorg says momentum is gaining among grassroots groups who are trying to put redistricting reform before Michigan voters.