(Crystal A. Proxmire, Feb. 2, 2017)
Pleasant Ridge, MI – The idea that “voters should pick their representatives instead of representatives picking their voters” is one that proponents of redistricting reform hope will resonate with residents regardless of their political persuasion.
Many people are unfamiliar with how the districts they are in come to be, or realize how greatly districts in Michigan are gerrymandered. Gerrymandering is when district lines are drawn in ways that give advantage to the political party in charge of drawing the map, often in ways that seem oddly-shaped and contrived.
Kevin Deegan-Krause, who is a political science professor at Wayne State University and a former Ferndale Schools Board Member, gave a presentation Wednesday at the Pleasant Ridge Community Center about the basics of gerrymandering and the efforts being organized to prevent it. As he said in his opening “Politicians draw maps to manipulate elections. We can help fix it.”
Michigan’s 14th Congressional District is one of the nation’s most notoriously gerrymandered districts. It goes from Downtown Detroit and snakes through the suburbs and into Pontiac, compacting as many traditionally Democratic votes into one District as possible so as to give Republicans in surrounding districts a better shot.
Packing is a term that means putting as many voters of one persuasion in one district, so it assures the disadvantaged party one solid seat, while making it harder for them to compete in the surrounding district, because their votes are artificially packed into one area.
Cracking means creating odd-shaped district boundaries that divide up areas for political gain. For example, if the party in control at the time of redistricting wants to force out a representative, they can draw the lines to force them to run against another representative of the same party.
As a party gains more advantages in the political process, they can use redistricting to create even more advantage. This does not only mean disproportionate representation of one party. It decreases people’s faith in the system. It discourages people from voting because they feel like their vote does not matter. And the lack of competition encourages people to run that appeal to the more extreme views of their parties, rather than the centrist ones, Deegan-Krause explained.
The next Census is in 2020 and the legislature elected in 2020 will draw the maps to be in place for the 2022 election. Several states have made the redistricting process less political, by setting standards that require districts to be more uniform in shape, by looking at data and creating competitive seats, and changing who it is that gets to draw the lines, such as by a nonpartisan commission or a bi-partisan commission.
Change could come to Michigan’s process if the State Legislature were to decide on reform. “Calling state legislatures and telling them that we don’t like the system we have [could be an option]. We have a luxury here in that our State Representative [Robert Wittenberg] is here, and he was the one who got the ball rolling on this. The problem is the Representatives who you could call are the one that got their positions due to redistricting.”
Another option would be waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on redistricting reform.
But the most plausible method will be a ballot initiative. Currently several groups are in discussion about how to do that, including what system will be proposed. Nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and CountMIVote are working on the issue. The Democratic Party is also exploring the topic. In Aug. 2015 State Representative Robert Wittenberg hosted a town hall about redistricting, that inspired Deegan-Krause to give his talk Wednesday.
The challenge of discussing redistricting reform is that the party in power easily dismisses those efforts as part of the game, or a power play by the underdog. Deegan-Krause predicted that if redistricting reform were to go on the ballot, there would be advertising to make it seem as if it were being pushed by special interest groups, or that it would be Democrats trying to rig the system. “It would be an uphill slog in that kind of media environment,” he said.
Over 100 people attended the presentation, many of whom wanted to know what they could do to help.
“We can start by talking about this, so when people hear about this they’re not hearing about it for the first time when it does come to the ballot,” Deegan-Krause said. “The ability to get funding depends on grassroots efforts. You all are here to listen to someone like me talk about gerrymandering. If we can tell people with time and money that we can get crowds like this we may be able to get this on the ballot.”
State Representative Wittenberg was in the audience for the presentation. “Have these conversations with people in other Districts,” he said. “Harness this energy, put it in a jar for the next few years – for the next 30 or 40 years. Stay active. Do good in the world. Get out and volunteer. We need more love in the world and that’s how we build those connections.”
Those who want to stay informed on redistricting efforts can sign up for updates at www.countmivote.org.
League of Women Voters Discusses Redistricting (Nov. 2015)