In the 2016 election, Michigan House Republicans edged out Democrats by just 3,000 votes. Yet, the GOP won more than 57 percent of all state House seats. Their victory was the result of creative map making.
State legislative districts are drawn by whichever political party is in power. Both Democrats and Republicans tend to draw those boundaries to consolidate their voting base. The practice is called “gerrymandering,” and opponents say it diminishes the voice of the people.
On a day when you couldn’t have blamed anyone for basking in a warm late winter sun, almost 600 people packed into the East Lansing High School cafeteria.
For the event’s organizers, the capacity crowd was a welcome if not ironic sight. So many people had squeezed into the room for a public forum on gerrymandering -- the technique political parties use to compress as many of their base voters into a single district as they can.
The event was co-sponsored by the Michigan Election Reform Alliance and the League of Women Voters of Michigan. Organizers noted that while the Republicans have held the majority in Michigan for nearly two decades, gerrymandering is a game played by both sides.
“This problem affects both parties...in some states one party or the other gets shut out,” says Patrick Rose with the Michigan Election Reform Alliance. “Those who’ve sought reform, support across the board and not primarily a partisan matter.”
Each state draws its own congressional and legislative districts after each federal census. In 26 states -- including Michigan -- that’s the job of the legislature. The rest create their boundaries through commissions. Some advise the legislature; others are made of political appointees. In a small handful of states, a backup commission takes over if the legislature fails to draw a plan.
Five states rely on independent commissions, including the one with the most political districts. Under then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, California enacted the nation’s most comprehensive redistricting reform policy. And in 2015, the U-S Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Arizona’s re-drawn map -- also drafted by an independent commission.
Some who attended the East Lansing forum had their own ideas about how Michigan might level its own political playing field. Pat McConeghy of DeWitt believes an apportionment system might be the answer.
“The district system is still a winner-take-all,” says McConeghy. “Whereas, if one was really concerned about representative democracy, that full vote would be apportioned in the way it fell out, so that those voters would actually see their vote turned into a representative. Anytime you draw a line, something is going to be a little bit amiss. And that line is going to be between Okemos and East Lansing or St. Johns and St. Charles (near Saginaw), and somebody is going to feel like their neighbor is on the other side of the fence. This kind of a system would eliminate that, and I do believe it would encourage greater participation in the vote.”
Abby Schwartz lives in Lansing -- a city that straddles three congressional districts. She favors something called a “splitline algorithm,” a mathematical process that draws the shortest possible lines to split Michigan into equal population centers.
“It will probably divide some cities, but it’s never going to divide the city of Lansing into three parts,” Schwartz says. “So it’s not going to be perfect, but there is no perfect solution.”
There may soon be some legal action in Michigan aimed at breaking district gerrymandering. Last November, a federal three-judge panel struck down the Wisconsin legislature’s political map, calling it overtly partisan. That case has emboldened Michigan Democrats who believe they too might mount a similar legal challenge. Former party chair Mark Brewer is representing plaintiffs in the case, but has not yet formally filed suit.