Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Change the way districts are drawn

I left my duties at Ruth Ellis Center early this evening to attend a presentation by the League of Women Voters. The title was "Redistricting in Michigan, Should Politicians Choose Their Voters?" I attended one of several events the LWV is doing around the state. This one was the closest.

I've been writing about gerrymandering – the political practice of drawing district boundaries to favor one party over the other – since 2011. So much of what was presented tonight wasn't new to me, though I learned a few things.

My first post on Gerrymandering was in 2011 and was about the newly drawn Michigan Congressional districts. This article explains gerrymandering. A post from November 2012 shows the effect of that mapping process on that year's election. One from June 2013 put some numbers to the issue. In the 2012 election 54% of the votes for state representative went to Democrats, yet 54% of the seats went to Republicans.

The LWV presentation provided a bit of history. Alas, I didn't catch it all. Back in 1963 Michigan ratified a new constitution. It described the body that was to draw district maps. It had an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, so was consistently deadlocked. Then some provision of that clause was declared unconstitutional (I didn't catch the reason or the year).

In 1964 the US Supremes established the "one person, one vote" standard.

In 1996 the Michigan Legislature established guidelines for how to draw districts. It was challenged and in 1999 the requirement that districts be "compact" was thrown out by the GOP dominated state Supremes.

The current process is that a legislative group appointed by the leadership (meaning by the party in power) creates the district maps. The legislature approves it. The governor confirms or vetoes it. If it gets stuck in the legislature the state Supremes are called in for the final decision. The LWV says this is higly partisan with both parties drawing boundaries to favor themselves. Their data shows in 1998 the Dems skewed the Michigan delegation to the House as much as the GOP did it in 2012. Both parties are guilty.

Under the current maps about 85% of the districts for the US House, state Senate, and state House are "safe," meaning the outcome is stacked in favor of one party over the other. This can be done by drawing boundaries so that 55% of the citizens are reliably of one party, making 45% of the votes meaningless.

This gerrymandering clearly has an impact on policy enacted in Michigan. The policies proposed by the two parties are quite different in the areas of education (funding has dropped under GOP leadership), transportation (Michigan roads are a mess), voting rights, health care availability, and civil rights (discrimination of gays). The solution is to change the way districts are drawn.

There are three ways districts are drawn. The legislature draws the maps, as is done on 27 states. The LWV says this is a conflict of interest. In 17 states an advisory panel draws the maps, which the legislature approves. This isn't any better. And in six states an independent commission draws the maps without needing legislative approval. California is one of the states and has seen increased voter turnout and confidence, less partisan bias, and more accountability of legislators.

Arizona is another such state. The voters approved the independent commission. The legislature challenged it. And this summer the US Supremes approved the idea of an independent commission.

To make that change happen in Michigan the legislature needs to pass an amendment to the state constitution by a 2/3 majority (ain't gonna happen) and the voters concur. Or there is a petition drive to put the issue directly before the voters.

During the Q&A session the LWV made their role clear. They are concerned enough about this issue that they are conducting these education events around the state and encouraging us to educate our neighbors and friends through social media, letters to the editor, and the usual campaign tactics of knocking on doors and making calls. Consider yourself educated.

However, the LWV is not leading a petition drive, though they hope to inspire a group to do just that. The LWV does not have the manpower and financial backing for such a drive.

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