In Michigan, disagreement over the significance of gerrymandering and how to address it
Eastern Michigan University junior Allen Maxson looked at a map of Michigan’s congressional districts and saw something “like a map of Europe in the middle of World War 2.” State Rep. Jeremy Moss (D–Southfield) saw “a squiggly mess." And Wayne State Prof. Kevin Deegan-Krause saw a “creepy lizard” in what is better known as Michigan’s 14th congressional district, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Increasingly, fingers are being pointed at gerrymandering — the practice of manipulating voting districts to favor a certain party — to explain the state of Michigan’s election outcomes, which might seem incongruous with voting habits.
For example, in 2014, Republicans won 9 of the 14 congressional races, increasing their hold of the Michigan House of Representatives by 3 seats. But Republicans received fewer votes than the Democrats, who pulled ahead by 50,000. A similar scenario played out in 2016, contributing to the fact that though Michigan as a state votes “purple,” district by district, it’s really rather red.
On the other end of the spectrum, Detroiters were unable to vote out state Sen. Virgil Smith (D–Detroit), despite his felony charges for opening fire at his wife's car and assaulting her, and state Rep. Gary Glenn (R-Midland) was reelected despite controversy over being a card-carrying member of an alleged hate group, leaving many voters wondering whether they are picking their politicians or if politicians are picking them.
Redistricting in Michigan is no simple process. The U.S. constitution requires that each district, both federal and state, have about the same size population. This is strictly enforced, as a congressional district map that has a 1 percent range from the smallest to largest population would be deemed unconstitutional. Additionally, districts must be drawn to ensure minorities not only have a vote, but they have an effective vote. Meaning, the amount of representatives who are favored by minority voters should be proportional to the amount of minority voters. The elected officials must reflect the voter base. States often create minority-majority districts to ensure this — Michigan has two — and to prevent “cracking,” the splitting of a constituency so its majority is never voted into office.
With all of these redistricting restrictions, it seems unlikely that further manipulation could occur. Yet Moss said Michigan is in a position that would allow gerrymandering to occur. Rarely is there one party in control of an entire state, but Michigan’s governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state legislature and U.S. representatives are all either Republican or have a Republican majority, he explained.
“When one party controls the process and there are no checks and balances, this is the result,” Moss said. “It's a problem that feeds itself, because as soon as the state trends in one direction politically, they're going to draw the lines so that they stay in power.”
Regardless of which party is in power, gerrymandering seems to have converse and extreme effects, making elections either very competitive or very safe. Though state Rep. Winnie Brinks (D–Grand Rapids) said elections in her district became more competitive when the district brought in more Republican votes, subsequently diluting the Democratic stronghold, Michigan elections have become more safe than competitive. The partisan majority in each district rarely changes election to election and instead is predictable. Whether or not that is due to voter preferences or gerrymandering is unclear.
“The overall impact of gerrymandering has been to reduce the number of truly competitive districts in the state,” Brinks said. “This means that there is an extraordinary amount of pressure on the candidates running in those races to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and knock on tens of thousands of doors.”
While political trends and less competitive districts may have been problematic for some representatives, state Rep. Peter Lucido (R–Macomb) pushed back against claims that any of these effects are unfair.
“No one seems to be saying what exactly needs to be changed and why,” Lucido said. “They're only saying it's unfair, but what is actually unfair? The fact that the Republicans are in charge? The fact that they're the majority? The fact that they won their elections?”
Between 1992 and 2013, there has been a Republican majority in Michigan’s Senate, and Michigan’s House has been nearly as red. In nearly every recent election for Michigan’s House and Senate, Michigan Democrats received more votes, but Michigan Republicans have held onto power. When the popular vote isn’t reflected in representatives, many argue that politicians are choosing voters instead of vice-versa.
This comes with another problem. Voters see their votes as less effective, as the majority opinion isn’t implemented, possibly breeding voter apathy. As explained by Brinks, decreased voter turnout is one of the worst side effects of gerrymandering.
“If voters feel like their voices don’t matter, they will not be as inclined to participate in the process,” Brinks said. “People often don't realize that there are lots of important public offices and issues on their ballots, and the fact that one race may have a predictable outcome doesn't mean there aren't other things on the ballot worth showing up for.”
Brinks, who represents the sprawling District 76, said she has had her fair share of experience with gerrymandering. Brinks believes Republicans wanted one seat in the Grand Rapids area of the two available, resulting in her district’s unusual shape. Surrounding House Districts 72, 73, 74, 77 and 86 have strong Republican majorities while 75 is the opposite. Regardless of whether or not the district was gerrymandered, its shape has resulted in highly competitive elections.
Despite being a relatively local election process, Brinks said victory often requires over a million dollars spent and over 50,000 doors knocked on. Though no district wants apathetic voters, Brinks said especially in competitive districts like hers, participation is all the more important.
“Some people think gerrymandering only dilutes the importance of votes, whereas in reality, it magnifies the importance of votes in competitive districts,” Brinks said. “Many in my district don't realize that their vote has additional importance because the results of the race can change the balance of power in the state House.”
Maxson agreed, and though he recognized many factors contribute to low voter turnout, gerrymandering could certainly play a large role. As a resident of the 11th district, which has been seen as the subject of potential gerrymandering, Maxson said people seem to have accepted the fate of their district, paying little attention to its politics.
“It reinforces that nihilistic idea that single votes don't matter and that people shouldn't bother leaving the house,” he said.
Additionally, Moss took issue with the fact that many communities united in terms of school district, city and lifestyle aren’t represented in Congress by the same representative.
“I think it's ridiculous that Farmington and Farmington Hills share so many things: community groups, school groups, school districts and even a name, but they don't share a member of Congress,” he said.
Side effects like splintered communities are possible no matter what politics you subscribe to, according to Moss.
Lucido agreed that having broken-up communities can be a hassle, but in Michigan’s case, it’s necessary. He said in more rural areas, it can be hard to make districts that fit the population quotas when houses are so spread out, leaving districts oddly shaped but not manipulated deliberately.
“I’ve got representatives that are in five different counties and that's insane, but they're usually in farm areas and the houses are spread apart and it's very difficult for them to meet with their constituents,” Lucido said. “It can be tough for the representative, but that's just the way the state has to be broken up in rural areas. Not everything is Wayne, Oakland and Macomb.”
In November, Wisconsin made waves in the media when three federal judges found Republicans guilty of unfair redistricting in the first legal ruling on gerrymandering in three decades. Now, Michigan is following suit.
Attorney Mark Brewer, the former chair of Michigan’s Democratic Party, has been working with the Wisconsin prosecutors to craft a similar lawsuit, hoping to prove Michigan’s districts are gerrymandered as well.
In the past, gerrymandering has been too difficult to prove for any substantial legal change, but the introduction of a mathematical test called the “efficiency gap” proved to be integral in Wisconsin's case and likely will be in Michigan’s too. The test calculates how much one party gains when it draws district boundaries by factoring in “wasted votes” or those cast for the party that didn’t win, and those cast for the winning party beyond the number they needed to win.
While the Supreme Court is set to hear Wisconsin’s case in the fall, Michigan congressmen are working on their own legislative change. State Reps. Jon Hoadley (D–Kalamazoo) and Moss introduced legislation that would amend the state constitution, creating a non-partisan commission to draw district lines instead of the majority party. According to Moss, the citizens would be chosen randomly and representatives would be able to “veto” partisan citizens. The process would be overseen by the nonpartisan auditor general.
“It's very complicated, and that's by design,” Moss said. “We wanted to make sure that two people couldn’t collude and wind up on the commission together. Anyone who served as a partisan official, worked for a partisan official, worked for a political party or was a major donor to a party or candidate.”
Brinks said a nonpartisan commission is exactly what Michigan needs and, ideally, should see bipartisan support.
“The goal should be to have a government made up of representatives that best reflect the priorities and opinions of the people it serves,” Brinks said. “Right now we don't have that. What we have now are politicians picking their voters; rather than voters picking their politicians.”
Maxson reinforced the idea that gerrymandering, in theory, shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and historically, gerrymandering has been an undertaking for politicians across the spectrum.
“I remember Arnold Schwarzenegger being an advocate of reducing gerrymandering, and he's a man I trust, a Republican that's down the middle and endorsed John Kasich,” Maxson said.
Lucido also agreed that gerrymandering is a nonpartisan issue, but he says that’s exactly why a citizen commission isn’t needed. While districts have been drawn by Republicans recently, they are temporary. Should the Democrats take control of the state House, they would be given the same opportunity, and to Lucido that seems completely fair. He said to amend the constitution is too drastic a measure for a task that is allocated fairly.
“When and if the Democrats are in control, they're going to try to redistrict those lines, and when the Republicans are in control, they're going to redistrict the lines,” Lucido said. “Everybody wants to change that which history has already told us. We wrote this constitution not to hurt people but to help people.”
Furthermore, Lucido expressed giving citizens the responsibility of redistricting seems like too much, too soon. As opposed to taking the job away from elected officials who know their constituencies well, he said, a citizen commission would best serve in a more advisory role.
“Change is good, don't get me wrong, but why wouldn't you put an advisory committee just to look and see if recommendations are needed, options or alternatives?” Lucido said. “If you make those recommendations then maybe the party will follow. The party isn't perfect by any means, but the constitution has solidified how we do things."
Maxson also said gerrymandering can be used as an excuse when elections don’t go a candidate's way and that voters should be wary of politicians creating non-issues.
“Fear and anger is a very big player in politics: fear the rich, fear the Mexicans, fear the corporations, so what better crowd pleaser than to promise to restore democracy to full glory and oust potentially rigged elections?” Maxson said.
But many political activists still aren’t convinced gerrymandering legislation can be passed through Michigan’s Republican-led legislature and are pushing for change with methods that wouldn’t need legislative approval.
In a series of town halls, including one at the University of Michigan's School of Social Work in March, the organizations called for voters to brainstorm their own ideas for new redistricting legislation and encouraged them to voice those ideas to their representatives.
“We’ve reached out to all of our state representatives and all mayors of any population greater than 3,000,” Wang said at the event. “We’re really trying to make this bipartisan, nonpartisan and as inclusive as we can.”
LSA sophomore Lorraine Furtado, a resident of Farmington Hills, said bipartisan recognition of the issue is the first step.
“Simply sparking a conversation, even with your political opposite, is enough for both sides of the political spectrum to realize that there really is a problem, which can then allow us to work towards a collective solution,” Furtado said.
But even though Maxson recognizes a problem with redistricting, he said he is not convinced Michigan's state government is the best avenue for change.
“The problem with government is that everything has to be done to benefit themselves, not the people,” Maxson said. “They may fix it, but only if they get a vote or a paycheck in return."
Regardless, Lucido said any conversation needs to be specific and efficient if it is to be effective, and considering the duration of this debate, that might mean a change in rhetoric for many.
“I think everybody's jumping the gun today, thinking they have a solution to something that may not even be a problem,” Lucido said. “There's nothing unique in my mind to say that a district line should or should not include this area, yet everyone complains and says it's totally unfair. Totally unfair how?”