More than 100 community members gathered in a room Thursday night at the University of Michigan School of Social Work to attend one in a series of town halls organized by two grassroots organizations aiming to end gerrymandering, Voters Not Politicians and Count MI Vote.

The political practice of gerrymandering — manipulating the boundaries of an electoral constituency to favor a candidate or party — has been a topic of major debate in recent months following the election of President Donald Trump.

Kevin Deegan-Krause, a professor of political science at Wayne State University, said the practice does not receive enough attention.

“The drawing of lines is an incredibly powerful tool, and one that I don’t think we appreciate enough,” he said.

Deegan-Krause, along with University Law Prof. Nancy Wang, are hoping to transfer the power of redistricting from legislators and politicians to Michigan citizens.

The town hall started out with a short history of gerrymandering and how it has been used by both major parties as a mechanism for winning elections and creating constituencies in their favor.

Deegan-Kraus said both Michigan and Maryland are guilty of gerrymandering, despite their difference in partisan leanings.

“If you are a Republican in Michigan or a Democrat in Maryland, you could look at the map and say, I care deeply about what my party wants,” he said. “My partner wants what is good for the country. My challenge is that is there any other reason that besides pure partisanship that you should be against this.”

The day after the presidential election, Wang joined the Facebook page for Count MI Vote and created a ballot question committee to begin drafting policy for a ballot proposal. Wang has traveled throughout the state, gathering feedback from communities before the petition is released.

“We’ve reached out to all of our state representatives and all mayors of any population greater than 3,000,” Wang said. “We’re really trying to make this bipartisan, nonpartisan and as inclusive as we can.”

Deegan-Kraus said opposing gerrymandering is simple and involves a basic level of fairness, and some of the current boundaries are lacking manageability, making it difficult for legislators to be responsive to their voters.

Other states have passed similar proposals that transfer the redistricting authority to the voters, including California, Arizona and Iowa.

In 2008, California voted to pass Proposition 11, which created a redistricting commission composed of fourteen members — five Democrats, five Republicans and four unaffiliated members.

Still, Wang, Deegan-Kraus and other members of Voters Not Politicians and Count MI Vote have not yet drafted a policy for the ballot proposal for a redistricting commission. The policy team is considering drafting a policy similar to that of California, yet there is one major barrier.

Wang said while in California voters are registered as Democrat, Republican or Independent, in Michigan it is optional for voters to register with a political party. There would be no way to ensure that restructuring commission members are indeed from the political party they claim, which is why Wang and Deegan-Kraus are seeking residents’ input to create a system for structuring these committees.

There are a few reasons why voters should care about gerrymandering, Deegan-Kraus said. Among those are that gerrymandering can allow incumbents to retain office with lower vote counts, and it often breaks up communities.

If the authority of redistricting switches to Michigan residents, the possibility exists that voter turnout will increase. Wang said following the establishment of California’s redistricting commission in 2008, there was an increase in voter turnout.

Social Work student Katherine Hammond said in recent months, following the election, there have been a number of issues to be concerned about and to fight for. But for Hammond, fighting to end gerrymandering is an issue that is worth the fight.

“Gerrymandering determines who is in power,” Hammond said. “To me, that gets to some of the root causes of why we have so many issues and why they are so highly contested.”

During the Q&A portion following the presentation, audience members voiced opinions on how to go about creating guidelines for restructuring committees. Some members suggested creating an algorithm to ensure the selection process is fair and unbiased, but also to have experts, like academics with political science backgrounds, serve as advisors.

Hammond, though concerned said he was these committees would be elitist.

“I think demographics and geography should be a factor in who gets picked, as well as socioeconomic status,” Hammond said.  “I think there should be bipartisan support and independence.”

There will be two virtual town halls for those interested in learning more about the future proposal. Once the petition is drafted, it will need 316,000 signatures to get on the ballot in November. 

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