Increasing political polarization and strategic redistricting were the central topics of discussion Thursday night as the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area hosted their second discussion in the last two weeks on the issue. The event attracting roughly 30 attendees to the Ford School of Public Policy.
The forum, co-sponsored by the University’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, is part of an educational campaign the League of Women Voters is hosting across the state to increase voter awareness about the way electoral districts are drawn in Michigan.
Susan Smith, vice president of program planning for the organization’s Michigan chapter, gave a short summary of the history of state redistricting, its pitfalls today and a possible plan of action for voters. Smith said the current system, in which the state legislature has the authority to draw up its own district maps and vote on them, presents a conflict of interest for politicians.
“Politicians are drawing their own voting maps to manipulate elections and keep their party in power,” she said. “A vast majority of districts, because of this, aren’t competitive … it’s putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.”
Michigan’s electoral districts were originally drawn as equal squares under the principles of being “compact and contiguous.” The state legislature’s maneuvering over the years, however, has resulted in districts of varying shapes and sizes, as lawmakers may adjust borders to include or exclude certain types of voters. Smith pointed to the state’s 14th congressional district, which stretches from Detroit to Farmington Hills, encompassing a large block of Democratic party members.
“(The district) isn’t exactly the shape of a salamander,” Smith said. “But it’s also definitely not compact. This is great if you’re a Democrat, but it also means that there are fewer Democrats in other districts.”
A decision last summer by the Supreme Court that upheld independent redistricting commissions motivated the Michigan chapter to initiate redistricting sessions across the state. Smith said multiple voters expressed interest to the organization about initiating reform in Michigan.
States have the option to permit state lawmakers to mark their own lines or authorize independent citizen groups to draw maps without needing approval from the state legislature. Six states currently employ independent commissions, and just this week, the League’s Ohio chapter helped pass a bill for statewide redistricting reform. Multiple audience members voiced support for Michigan to implement such a change in its redistricting system.
Joe Schwarz, a former Republican member of the Michigan Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, was one of those in attendance to advocate for reform based on personal lawmaking experience.
“(The League) is on the right track,” Schwarz said. “We’re gerrymandered … and it’s totally discombobulated our legislature.”
Smith tailored the second half of her presentation to illustrate the implications of polarized districts on state issues, ranging from education policy to transportation reform.
“Parties are vested in their own interests,” she said. “Funding for transportation has decreased when adjusted for inflation, and won’t take effect until 2017 or 2018. You wonder how they’re going to fix the roads between now and then.”
CLOSUP Administrator Thomas Ivacko agreed on the centrality of redistricting to achieving other types of policy reform.
“We’ve seen progress in Ohio, and I’d hate for us to take a second seat to them in any way, but redistricting is such an important issue,” Ivacko said. “I think (the presentation) did a great job of showing how unbalanced outcomes can be, and how they may not reflect the views of voters.”
Though the League won’t make a push to put redistricting on the ballot in 2016 due to funding concerns, the organization will continue to push for voter awareness across the state.
“When we vote, we want our elections to be fair, our votes to count, and our voices to be heard. And we need to educate voters so that they know and care,” Smith said.