I went into Detroit this afternoon for a presentation by Voters Not Politicians. This is the group that is trying to get a proposal on the ballot in Michigan to have Congressional and state legislature districts drawn up by an independent commission. This would end gerrymandering in the state.
Before the program started I counted 80 people in the room. I looked around later and saw more heads. My rough guess is about 100 people showed up. Delightful news!
After introductions a local woman spoke for a few minutes. She concluded by saying gerrymandering is another form of oppression.
This effort in Michigan was started as the online group Count MI Vote. They discussed issues related to gerrymandering. It now has 2500 members. The official ballot committee grew out of that group and has the name Voters Not Politicians.
The main speaker was Kevin Cross (I think), who is a political science professor of WSU (his office is about a thousand feet from where we were sitting). He is very good at explaining gerrymandering. I’ll repeat some of his lessons, though I’ve written about it before.
Definition: A district is a geographical area marking which residents vote for one member of the House or a body of the state legislature. One district, one member.
Gerrymandering is quite old in America. It started about the first time districts were drawn. The earliest cases we heard about today were after the 1800 census. It is a natural political game. But extremely fine census data and computers allow the effects to be much more severe and no longer a game.
Do you think gerrymandering is good for Michigan? Does it keep your preferred policies in place? Then consider Maryland, severely gerrymandered by and for Democrats. Still think it is a good idea? If it is wrong in Maryland it is wrong in Michigan.
When the professor teaches gerrymandering in his classes he displays a grid of red and blue squares seemingly jumbled together. There are 49 squares, 24 blue and 25 red. The assignment is to draw seven districts, each with seven squares. He showed it was possible to draw one district entirely of red, then draw all the rest with four blue squares and three red. Blue wins 6 districts, red wins 1. He showed another division that gave red 6 and blue 1.
This example shows two concepts – yeah the ideas have been around long enough they have been named: Packing puts as many of your opponents as possible into a small number of districts. That’s the district of all red. Cracking is spreading the remainder of your opponents into as many districts as possible. Those are the other districts where each of the three red were matched by four blue. There is also kidnapping – a rising red politician able to appeal to blue voters has his residence shoved into a red district. And hijacking – two prominent politicians of one party are pushed into the same district.
We were handed another example:
He showed a few examples from the 2011 redistricting in Michigan – made out of Legos! He hasn’t made a couple of the examples out of Legos because they are so spidery they would be too fragile.
This is why all that is bad:
* It deeply affects which party is in power in Washington and in state capitols.
* But you like them in power? It is a fairness issue: If it is bad for Dems in Maryland it is bad for the GOP in Michigan.
* Demographics change. The Greatest Generation is dying out and Millennials are voting. Both parties are beginning to see it is better to have a truce now than be on the other side of vengeance later.
* Manageability and Community. In highly gerrymandered areas your neighbors might not be in your district. Those who are in your district may be a long way away. Your neighbors need to be in the same community of voters.
* Responsiveness. If a district is safe, who do the politicians listen to? Usually not the voters. If they do listen it is to the extreme voters who show up for primary elections. If a district is safe, no need for a candidate to say he is more moderate and able to attract voters from the other party.
What are possible solutions to the problem?
* Court battles. They are proceeding. The Wisconsin case based on partisan (not racial) gerrymandering may reach the Supremes this term on next. In this case the court might accept the mathematical formula now used to show gerrymandering.
In racial gerrymandering cases the courts have demanded maps be redrawn. Strangely, the new districts produce the same lopsided split. In addition, courts can’t prevent bad districts, they can only demand they be changed – usually after an election or two.
* Nicely asking our legislature to pass redistricting laws. That got a laugh in this crowd.
* Ballot resolution. Michigan allows it. But only a constitution amendment prevents the legislature from overriding or tinkering with what the voters say (there are many examples of that in the last decade). Yes, the process is arduous and expensive (as a change to the constitution should be).
The Voters Not Politicians group has filed their intention to start the process. They are an official ballot committee. They have not yet filed the chosen ballot language, which is then displayed on the forms to gather signatures. This group intends to be transparent every step of the way. That includes disclosing donors.
It also means turning to us to help craft the ballot language. There are several open questions.
* Does the proposal say a little or a lot? Long and confusing proposals tend to not get passed. Proposals that cover the minimum tend to get tweaked by the legislature in bad ways.
* Who should serve on the redistricting commission? Michigan does not require voters to list party affiliation, so there is no reliable way to get a balance between parties. Do we allow current or former lawmakers? How about those who have contributed $2,000 or more to a party or campaign in the last five years? Do we choose professors of political science or law? Do we ban lobbyists? How about appointing any registered voter, choosing them in a manner similar to jury duty? Do we balance different regions of Michigan, different races and ethnic groups, or different economic groups? Do we accept applicants and have them write an essay?
* What is the criteria for constructing districts? Compactness? Our professor showed a case where compact districts were still gerrymandered. Consider geographic features? Do we try to keep cities/townships/counties intact? Do we try to make districts competitive? That might require all Detroit districts to be half in the city and half in the suburbs.
Do we try to keep affinity groups together? Do we make sure eastern Dearborn, home to many Arabs, is entirely in one district? How do we define affinity – race, ethnicity, economic group, profession, or religion?
Because I attended I was given a survey to help answer those questions. I was told I shouldn’t share it because they want it filled out only by people who understand gerrymandering, which is available at their presentations. There are still many presentations, including Saginaw on the 21st, Ann Arbor on 23rd, Traverse City on the 24th, Fenton on the 29th, etc. Sometime soon they will do an online presentation.
There are other ways to help. You could donate. They figure $1.5 to $2 million to handle all the legal issues (such as a team to make sure the eventual text doesn’t have any legal holes). They estimate 3,000 volunteers collecting signatures – with that many people each person needs to collect only 10 per week. There are also various committees, such as the one to write the text.
Even if we win this ballot, it won’t quite be then end. The leaders know it will be challenged in court.