Woronchak: Why redistricting reform matters

Gary Woronchak

Greg McNeilly’s Aug. 20 column, “Redistricting scheme is power grab,” leaves me amazed at how someone can argue so forcefully for a position they simply must know is untrue.

McNeilly, former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, is acutely and personally aware that the state’s process for drawing district lines for state and federal offices is about the most partisan activity imaginable in government.

I wonder if he couldn’t help laughing out loud when writing that an idea being discussed to improve the process is, and I’m laughing myself as I retype his words, “an all-out assault on voters’ rights and accountability.”

He uses all the right scare-phrases. “Redistricting scheme.” “Power grab.” “Liberal interest groups.”

But none is as disingenuous as “eliminates voter oversight.” He uses that theme a few times, too, but none more he-knows-he’s-lying as, “Voters elect the men and women responsible for drawing the maps, and if they do a poor job of it, voters can toss them out.”

Most voters don’t know what “the maps” are. They don’t know the people representing them draw the maps, and they certainly don’t know if they do a good or bad job. For the vast majority of even the few voters who still participate in elections, the entire concept of redistricting is a mystery, and voter oversight, an illusion.

That’s the way those in power want to keep it. They believe the less you know about how politicians really control what you believe is your process as voters, the better.

It’s an effective tactic: You don’t know what I’m talking about, but if I convince you a “power grab” will “eliminate voter oversight,” chances are I can make you mad about it. The political structure keeps itself in charge by exploiting the lack of awareness of the non-politically-entrenched public.

Here are some truths. Most districts for state House and Senate and U.S. House seats are drawn to contain a majority of voters that generally favor one political party or the other. The party in power in Lansing draws the lines, and it’s become an art form to draw districts that adhere to the letter of standards and rules while still making certain their party will have a majority of seats in the House and Senate.

This isn’t an opinion. It’s a fact.

November general elections between the winners of the earlier Democratic and Republican primary elections are rarely competitive, since the districts are designed to favor one of the parties. So the most important elections are the August primary elections with very low turnouts. In some cases, this has led to extremists and ideologues being elected in light-participation primaries, and even if their extreme views are out of step with a majority in the district, if they’re in that district’s predetermined party, they are elected to office.

McNeilly knows this. But he and others who are determined to protect the advantage Republicans, as the party in power, have under the current process are determined to discredit, undermine and ward off any changes that might make the process more fair.

There are ways to take the process away from the Legislature and put it in the hands of a more independent body, at least one balanced with equal partisan interests, if partisanship can’t be removed entirely. That’s a conversation very much worth having. It would be refreshing to have an election with both candidates trying to appeal to all the voters in their district, not just the party base.

Anything that can lessen the partisan divide that keeps our state stalled on issues like roads is worth exploring.

McNeilly’s arguments are humorous, though, for those who understand the truth of the system. When he suggests veto power rest with a “Governor, whose election couldn’t have less to do with legislative boundaries,” he’s telling one truth to hide another. It’s hilarious that he implies a governor has no interest in what party remains in power, since keeping their party in power is how a governor pushes through his or her agenda.

None of his quips, however, match the humor of his statement that the current system puts “communities first, not political parties.”

It’s sad that the most blatant untruth is his best joke of the bunch.

Gary Woronchak, D-Dearborn

chairman of the Wayne County Commission