August 6, 2014 at 1:00 am


Partisan redistricting limits voter choice

Weighting districts so heavily to one party or the other predetermines the outcome of elections

If you didn’t vote in Tuesday’s primary election, you likely missed your chance of influencing this year’s key congressional and legislative races in Michigan. For most contests, the November elections will be little more than a formality to confirm what was decided in the party primaries.

Redistricting — the redrawing of voting districts that happens after the U.S. census every 10 years — has become such a partisan process that the result is uncompetitive races, except for intra-party challenges. The concept of Republicans and Democrats facing off in a tightly fought fall showdown is nearly gone. Candidates run for safe seats that fall along party lines, and voters are sorely underrepresented.

Many races throughout the state Tuesday featured candidates of the same party fighting against each other in what will likely determine who ultimately wins the seat. With voter turnout characteristically low in primary elections, a shockingly small number of Michigan voters decided who wins this year.

In a Grand Rapids area legislative district, for example, seven Republicans appeared on the primary side of the ballot, while only one Democrat contended for a seat that will almost certainly be held by the GOP because of its heavy partisan make-up.

In Wayne County, competition for state House races came only from the plethora of Democratic candidates typically facing one Republican challenger.

This leaves voters with less choice in candidates, ideas that don’t veer far from party talking points, and ultimately, elections that don’t represent what many citizens want to see in their leaders.

While some areas within Michigan are obviously predetermined, Detroit and Grand Rapids among them, the rest of Michigan is less predictable, which is why it gets so much attention during presidential elections.

Yet as of 2011, only about one of every seven Michigan residents lived in a “swing” district, according to the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit that works on Michigan policy and election issues.

The Center’s analysis showed that from 2001 to 2011, Republicans had 43 safe seats in the state House and 19 safe seats in the Senate. Similarly, Democrats held 42 safe seats in the House and 11 safe seats in the Senate. None of those seats changed hands between parties.

It’s hard to imagine voters’ preferences changed so little over the span of 10 years, and in so many districts. What’s more likely is voters realize the limited impact of their individual vote in a system that is largely predetermined.

Redistricting has a reasonable purpose, mainly to level shifting demographics and population centers. In a place like southeast Michigan, which has experienced drastic change over the past 10 years, it’s necessary.

But the party in power always uses the opportunity to create districts to their advantage. The Republican-controlled Legislature did it after the 2010 elections, picking up several seats in the state House. When Democrats held the majority, they did the same. They will again if they get the opportunity.

Before the next round of district redraws, a fairer, more scientific system of setting district lines should be developed to give Michigan voters the benefit of truly competitive races, and force candidates to compete on the basis of ideas that appeal across the political spectrum.