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With Redistricting a Looming 2018 Election Issue, Experts Weigh In

This post covers IPPSR's ongoing public policy forums. IPPSR''s next forum will be Wednesday, March 28, 2018 on the subject of the health of the Great Lakes.

During the last several years, court cases throughout the United States have caused a growing frustration among every day citizens and political parties with the process of how legislative and congressional districts are drawn. The first IPPSR forum of 2018 drew nearly 200 people Jan. 10 to hear about the issues, history and current efforts to reform the process in Michigan.

“What is the problem we are trying to solve?" Corwin Smidt, associate professor of political science at Michigan State University began by asking. He noted issues of party polarization, electoral competition and better representation as the three most commonly recognized. 

While several states have moved to using independent commissions to draw such lines, 37 state legislatures control the process for mapping legislative districts and 42 state legislatures draw congressional lines.  However, Smidt stated that gerrymandering has not resulted in party polarization, and when addressing electoral competition, competition comes from many different factors.  For instance, it could be someone is not doing their job and that gerrymandering might cause more primary competition within a political party based on ideological competition.

Nonetheless, Smidt indicates that while legislatively drawn maps produce less overall competition, and court drawn maps produce more with commissions even more, his studies have shown that it is very hard to measure whether gerrymandering has harmed competition in Michigan.

The process of redrawing lines is one which takes place every 10 years. Richard McLellan, chairman of the Michigan Law Revision Commission and an adjunct associate professor at MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences, discussed Michigan’s constitutional and statutory provisions. 

Michigan’s process is governed by the provisions of its 1908 and 1963 constitutions, and while Michigan’s Constitution does provide for a reapportionment commission, it has never been used. The standards in Michigan have gone through revisions over the years, and today the so-called “Apol standards” remain of primary importance.  These standards call for districts to be as compact as possible, maintaining county lines and local boundaries as much as possible. 

However, McLellan noted that redistricting is a political act and that there is no such thing as a non-partisan reapportionment plan.

Dr. Davia Downey, associate professor of public administration at Grand Valley State University, discussed current efforts in Michigan to place on the ballot a proposal to institute a process which would take redrawing lines out of the hands of the Legislature and vest that power in an outside commission. 

The ballot effort, launched in 2016, began with town hall meetings across the state organized by interested citizens, she said.. Downey was clear to note that the effort is neither affiliated with nor received funds from any political party. From the town halls and survey work, a policy committee was formed and from there a proposal for change, she said.

Built on the basis of the Apol standards, the initiative, if approved for the ballot and then by the voters, would require the Michigan Secretary of State to administer the formation of an independent commission. The proposal calls for the Secretary of State to randomly mail a minimum of 10,000 registered Michigan voters and invite them to apply. From that, 200 would be culled, and then 13 members, four Democrats, four Republicans and five persons unaffiliated or affiliated with a minor party would be selected. Political insiders (politicians, consultants, and lobbyists) will be banned from serving on the commission.

Downey said the current lack of transparency is a key issue driving the need for change. Instead of electoral maps drawn in secret closed-door meetings, the new commission would be required to conduct its business in public hearings that are open to input from throughout the state. All proposed maps, along with the methodology and data to create them, must be submitted as public reports. Everything down to the variables used by the computers used to draw the maps would be available to the public.

After the presentations, questions were taken from the audience and discussion followed. The discussion reflected a core objection from McLellan, based on his statement that the redrawing of political districts is a political act.

With proposal petitions now under review for signature certification, it may very well be that the voting pubic will have the last say in the matter this November.

Arnold Weinfeld is associate director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.