Viewpoint: State redistricting process is flawed

BY DAN MEISLER

Published October 3, 2010

As a newspaper reporter for more than a decade, I had the chance to cover nearly every level of government, from Congress and the Supreme Court to the Pinckney Village Council. One of the greatest joys of that work was interviewing the "man/woman on the street" to gather the general public's thoughts on the political issue of the day.

One of the inescapable conclusions of talking to so many people about so many different topics is that the level of consensus on politics in America — that is, agreement among the actual people, not politicians — is surprisingly high. I would wager that most people agree on most things (excluding some seemingly intractable issues like abortion rights). I'm convinced that a non-dogmatic, centrist approach to government is what most people want.

Now, however, polarization is the order of the day. Gridlock in Washington, demonization of one or the other side by TV, radio and Internet pundits and the infusion of greater and greater amounts of cash into political campaigns have combined to create a toxic political atmosphere.

One often-overlooked contributor to these divisions is the current practice of redrawing political districts every 10 years based on the decennial census. In a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse, the job of redistricting is tasked to the state legislature. The very people who would benefit from drawing the lines to create "safe" districts — districts so heavily populated by voters of one party that the other party's candidates essentially have no chance of winning a general election — are the ones who actually get to do it.

The result is a system in which politicians have absolutely no incentive to appeal to the center. That's because in a safe district, all a candidate has to do is win the primary and he or she is virtually guaranteed to win the general election. So all they have to do is win over their party's primary voters, generally a more hard-line group than the electorate as a whole, at least in my experience.

Perhaps a more troubling effect is the disparity between the voting preferences of the electorate and the makeup of our Congressional delegation. For example, in Michigan, according to a 2007 report from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, 49.2 percent of votes in the 1998 Congressional elections were cast for Democrats. But because the party had drawn the districts after the 1990 census, 10 of Michigan’s 16 seats in the House, more than 62 percent, were held by Democrats. After Republicans drew the districts following the 2000 census, an equal and opposite situation emerged: In the 2006 election, 44.5 percent of the Congressional vote went to Republicans, but they ended up with 9 of the 15 seats, or 60 percent. If this isn't a subversion of the will of the voters, I don’t know what is.

This issue has gained some attention this year, as various media outlets have written about how high the stakes are in this election cycle. In effect, the winners of this election will control each states’ political scene for the next 10 years. Michigan stands to lose one of its Congressional seats because of our population loss. For the most part, however, these media accounts fail to point out the ridiculousness of the system in which political partisans essentially get to choose their voters, instead of voters choosing their candidates at the ballot box.

Ann Arbor residents have a great opportunity to learn more about the issue with the screening of a new, unreleased documentary called “Gerrymandering.” A special showing of “Gerrymandering” is set for 7 p.m., Oct. 6 at the University’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy on State Street. Writer/director Jeff Reichert will attend and participate in a panel discussion after the showing with University Professor John Chamberlin, former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz (R–Mich.) and Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Reichert will also attend a fundraiser in Detroit for Common Cause of Michigan, which is making redistricting reform one of its top issues this year.

Other states, notably Iowa, have implemented non-partisan systems of redistricting. It can be done. And if we want to take positive action to overcome the artificial divisions plaguing our political system, it should be done.

Dan Meisler is a University staff member.