Calabrese: Get lawmakers out of redistricting process

Dan Calabrese

You read the push for a ballot initiative in Michigan that would create an independent commission to redraw legislative and congressional districts every 10 years instead of letting the Legislature do it, and the first thing you notice is that everyone who’s enthusiastic about the idea at the moment appears to be a Democrat.

That’s not surprising for a simple reason: Republicans controlled the process in 2001, they controlled it again in 2011 and they’re probably going to control at least part of it again in 2021, since it’s hard to envision Democrats retaking the state Senate, given that they start with a 27-11 deficit.

It’s easy to understand why Democrats are for the change. But just because an idea aligns with your opponent’s partisan interests (if only for the moment) doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad idea for the state.

And it’s hard to imagine a system worse for Michigan than the one that produced the lollipop swirl-shaped District 14 on the current congressional map.

That was gerrymandering at its most shameless, a clear design by the GOP to keep a seat safe while strategically giving away the similarly absurd District 11 to the Democrats.

So long as the result was a 9-5 Republican lock on the state’s congressional delegation, a little creative artistry on the map was all in a day’s work.

Republicans claimed they had no choice but to design the districts like this because of the requirement in the Voting Rights Act that they maintain a certain number of “majority minority” districts.

They said there was no other way to do it.

That’s a crock.

A citizen’s contest held that same year produced at least 15 redistricting maps that would have complied with the Voting Rights Act without resembling Leroy Neiman paintings. The best plans were submitted to the Legislature, which summarily ignored them. (Disclosure: I had a tiny role in the contest.)

This comes up now because last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Arizona voters could take redistricting responsibility from the partisan Legislature and hand it over to an independent commission. This means Michigan could do so as well, and a petition drive to put the matter on the ballot is sure to start almost immediately.

Readers of this column know I am a frequent critic of ballot initiatives, especially the way they work in Michigan, where they usually devolve into some interest group’s attempt to get its own pet priority enshrined in the state constitution.

But something like changing the redistricting process is exactly how a ballot initiative is supposed to be used.

Obviously, politicians won’t voluntarily give up the spoils of victory, their power to rig elections to their benefit, so the people have to do it for them.

This is the sort of priority that justifies amending the state constitution — not legalizing drugs, banning new bridges or telling the utilities they have to use more windmills.

Let me make the conservative case for doing it: A Republican elected in a safe district has a lot more incentive to play it safe in legislating. A Republican elected in a competitive district has to work hard to get results.

As for the conservatives who are always complaining about “RINOs,” which system do you think is more likely to produce the type of Republican you want in office? Also, it’s one thing to believe in conservative policy ideas. It’s another thing to be able to sell them to the public. A Republican running in a safe, gerrymandered district just has to stick that R after his name and wait for the votes to be counted.

A Republican in a competitive district has to really make his case for why his policies are better.

And the same would be true for the Democrats.

Dan Calabrese writes for The Politics Blog. Join the conversation at blogs.detroitnews.com/politics.