Democracy in Michigan works better when everyone has a seat at the table. Unfortunately, in Michigan, gerrymandering — the drawing of state legislative districts to benefit the party in power — means that frequently isn’t the case.
Every 10 years, lawmakers are supposed to redraw districts to account for demographic changes and ensure that the state’s maps continue to reflect Michigan’s diverse communities. What happens instead is that politicians and paid political operatives work behind closed doors to tilt maps in favor of one party or the other — and to lock that advantage in for a decade. Politicians, in short, pick their voters and pre-determine election results.
The result is wildly distorted elections. Michigan is a battleground state when it comes to statewide races, with consistently contested elections at virtually every level. But this robust, vibrant democracy is nowhere to be seen when it comes to congressional and state legislative races. Studies show that Michigan’s congressional and state legislative maps now have some of the highest partisan bias – a measure used to determine partisan gerrymanders – in the country.
Michigan is not alone. Experience shows that both political parties — given a free hand — will game the system for their benefit. Voters in Wisconsin and Maryland have sued contending that Republican- and Democratic-controlled governments respectively, drew unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders in 2011.
These legislatures, like Michigan’s, can execute these egregious gerrymanders because state law leaves responsibility for redrawing maps in the hands of self-interested lawmakers of a single party. The result is a map drawing process intentionally obscure to the public. District lines are drawn with little, if any, public input. The current redistricting system emboldens the party in control of the legislature to entrench their power and ignore voters.
Not surprisingly, this breeds cynicism in voters who feel elections are meaningless, and gives politicians little incentive to be responsive and accountable to their constituents. Instead, lawmakers govern with an eye to polarized primary electorates.
There are signs that voters have finally had enough. A grassroots group, Voters Not Politicians, has mobilized over 3,000 volunteers fed up with rigged politics in Michigan. In just three months, this group of everyday Michiganders, including Democrats, Republicans, and people who have never been involved in politics before, has gathered nearly 450,000 signatures supporting a ballot proposal to restore public trust in our representatives and increase accountability.
The proposal would go a long way toward making Michigan’s redistricting process more fair by taking the power to draw districts away from lawmakers and giving it to an independent citizens commission, consisting of Democrats, Republicans, and voters unaffiliated with either party. Michigan residents would be able to apply to serve on the commission, and the selection body would be required to consider demographic and geographic diversity when selecting commission members.
The commission would also be required to hold 10 public hearings in different geographic locations across the state to solicit public input before drawing proposed maps, and five public hearings after the maps are drawn.
Adopting an independent redistricting commission is a common-sense solution that works. Citizen-driven ballot initiatives sparked redistricting reform in Arizona in 2000 and in California in 2008 and 2010. In California, the results were transformative. The 2011 map had nearly triple the number of competitive districts than the 2001 map and increased diverse representation. The commissioners received a high volume of public comments and had well-attended public hearings, demonstrating that residents could effectively use the process to advance their communities’ interests.
The Michigan constitution says, “All political power is inherent in the people.” The proposal offered by reform groups encourages bipartisanship, public participation and engagement, and transparency. It is a critical step toward ensuring a broader group of voices are represented in the legislature. The people of Michigan have the opportunity to take the power of drawing district boundaries out of the hands of self-interested legislators, and place it into the hands of the people.
Alexis Farmer is a researcher and program associate at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.