November 20, 2018

Slaying the Gerrymandered Beast

By Amy Kerr Hardin | April 15, 2017

A number of Republican Michigan lawmakers have been in the news for dodging the madding crowds of disenfranchised constituents. These elected officials are cowering safe in the knowledge that their re-election is a lock. It’s all about gerrymandering, the corruptive practice of manipulating political districts to the unfair advantage of one political party.

If a grassroots group in Michigan has their way, this gross dereliction of duty will be abolished by making the state the first in the nation to constitutionally bar politicians from participating in redistricting. The nonpartisan ballot question committee Voters Not Politicians is launching a petition drive for a 2018 vote on a constitutional amendment that would prohibit professional partisans from drawing districts to favor their own interests. The initiative will create a 9-member nonpartisan “citizens redistricting commission,” effectively removing politics from the process.

Nonpartisan state commissions became possible through a landmark 2015 Supreme Court ruling which struck down a Republican challenge to the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission’s authority. The door for reform was kicked wide open.

The high court mandated back in 1964 that redistricting must be “fair and effective representation for all citizens” — a fine idea in the theoretical realm, but it clearly has proven to be dysfunctional under the growing rancor of partisanship. Districts have been manipulated at both the federal and state levels, crippling the electoral process and weakening democracy.

Katie Fahey of Voters Not Politicians asserts it’s time to end the dominance of backroom politics. She explains how gerrymandering has drastically skewed results in Michigan:

“In 2016, the difference between the two major parties’ state House vote was just 3,000 votes (0.07%). But the creative maps developed by the politicians and their consultants gave one party a 63-47 advantage in the House.”

Michigan is not unique in their politically tortured electoral maps. The practice of gerrymandering knows no party. But as Republicans came to dominate state legislatures across the nation over the past decade, GOP operatives set to work redrawing districts which simply defy logic and ethical norms.

Wisconsin recently got spanked hard in federal court over the issue. Bypassing the obvious political reasoning, plaintiffs instead argued that the way districts were drawn was inefficient. The court agreed. Subsequent to the ruling, a request from the governor to await a Supreme Court decision on the question was rejected. Wisconsin was ordered to redraw their districts prior to the 2018 midterm elections.

Legal action against gerrymandering is also in the works in Michigan. In fact, the judiciary is busy considering a multitude of cases across the nation over districts rigged based on the 2010 census, with a particular focus on racial bias. Anticipating a surge in legal challenges, Tufts University and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law are now offering a 6-day training course for mathematicians to become expert witnesses on the topic. More than 900 people have indicated interest in the program.

Redistricting along racial lines has long been considered a violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act — yet the problem persists wherever minorities exist. Rulings on the topic are coming in fast and furious. Just this March, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Virginia State Legislature had engaged in a clear exercise of racial gerrymandering, and a few days later a federal court ruled on a 2011 case in Texas finding that redistricting had violated both the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

In recent years, Democrats have suffered the most from extreme political mapping. The Democratic National Committee has been under increasing pressure from stakeholders to tackle the problem. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is the point man for aiding states in the redistricting process makeover. He’s been tapped to head the National Redistricting Committee, an organization intent on undoing the state-level gerrymandering mess. It seems a new appreciation for the “all politics is local” maxim is driving the DNC’s renewed interest in capturing state houses.

New lines will next be drawn after the decennial census in 2020. So significant change can only occur well after the 2018 midterm elections — a contest heavily skewed by GOP interests.

The process of petitioning for a Michigan constitutional amendment is an arduous one, requiring the collection of well over 300,000 valid signatures within the narrow window of 180 days. And it’s not cheap. Political strategist Howard Edelson, a veteran of a number of statewide ballot measure campaigns, estimates the cost will run between $10 and $15 million. Voters Not Politicians is actively fundraising, with a tentative petition launch date later this spring.

Putting an end to gerrymandering is certainly a herculean task — as with all things political, scruples typically are the first to go out the window for those in power. It’s a malady afflicting both parties. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat and former governor of Maryland, recently came clean on his abuse of the redistricting process. His turnaround occurred contemporaneous to being served a subpoena commanding his testimony on his 2010 participation in redrawing the state’s congressional districts to his party’s advantage. Maryland is somewhat unique in that current Republican governor Larry Hogan shares O’Malley’s call for a nonpartisan commission to consider redistricting.

Another Republican, a former governor of California, also weighed-in on banishing the unscrupulous practice of partisan redistricting:

“We took the power of drawing the district lines away from the politicians and gave it back to the people, where it belongs… We’ve proven that gerrymandering can be permanently terminated.”

Yep, that was Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Amy Kerr Hardin is a retired banker, a regionally-known artist, and a public policy wonk and political essayist at Democracy-Tree.com. She and her husband have lived in the Grand Traverse area since 1980, where they raised two children, and have both been involved in local politics and political campaigns. 

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