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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

The End of Gerrymandering?

September 1, 2017

DETROIT – The worst gerrymandered congressional district I’ve ever seen is not, in fact, in Michigan – where a major effort called “Voters Not Politicians” is now under way to return control of the redistricting process to the people.  Michigan’s districts are indeed bad, gleefully designed by Republicans six years ago, when they had total control of state government and new census results to work with.

Once the new boundaries were set, Michigan Democrats on two occasions got more total votes for their congressional candidates than the GOP ones did.

Nevertheless, Republicans each time won nine seats in Congress, Democrats only five – which is exactly what those drawing the lines intended.  To do that, legislators used their computers to draw some very twisted maps.  

But nothing is as perverted as Ohio’s Ninth Congressional District, which used to essentially consist of Toledo and its suburbs. Now, that district starts in downtown Toledo and then snakes many miles along Lake Erie, only to end up in inner-city Cleveland. Ohio Republicans did this to pack as many Democrats into as few districts as possible—and it worked.  Ohio, another state where party strength is roughly even, has 14 Republican congressmen and only four Democrats.

There’s little doubt that Democrats would have tried much the same thing in both states if they’d been in control.

But in the last few years, citizens in both states have become aware of how democracy-distorting this process is. Two years ago, Ohioans voted overwhelmingly – 71 percent – to make legislative redistricting a truly bipartisan effort. Now, the League of Women Voters of Ohio is spearheading an effort to get another proposal on the ballot that would do the same for congressional seats.

And in Michigan, a group called Voters Not Politicians (votersnotpoliticans.com) is now busily collecting signatures for a proposed state constitutional amendment that would revolutionize both legislative and congressional redistricting.

“Right now, we have a system where the politicians pick their voters,” through outrageous gerrymandering, said Walt Sorg, a spokesman for the group.  “We think the voters should pick the politicians instead,” he said. VNP would create an Independent Citizens’ Redistricting Commission to run the process. It would consist of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independent voters.

Those serving would be picked from across the state. Political insiders, lobbyists, elected officials and their close relatives would be barred.  All meetings would be open to the public; all data available for public inspection.

Final maps would have to be approved by no fewer than two members of each party on the commission, something designed to ensure fairness and bipartisanship.

Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Lose Angeles, told MIRS, the Michigan Information & Research Service, the proposal was well-thought out and “should yield a process that is reliably independent.”  He did have some worries that the commissioners would be insufficiently sophisticated and might become too reliant on the staff and resources of the Michigan Secretary of State.

However, he praised the plan because it would prevent incumbents from drawing districts to benefit themselves. But though the petitions were finally approved by the Board of State Canvassers last month—and volunteers are enthusiastically collecting signatures—VNP will face some terrific battles just to get this on the ballot. 

First, getting the needed signatures won’t be easy: They need to collect 315,654 valid autographs from registered Michigan voters within 180 days, meaning by next February.  Since some are always invalid, as a practical matter they really need to collect more than 400,000. Groups that succeed in doing this normally pay professional canvassers.  Katie Fahey, the president of VNP, admits they have no money for that.  Instead, they are relying on thousands of enthusiastic volunteers.

Getting there may not be impossible, but it won’t be easy, especially when it comes down to trying to get people with clipboards to stand outside in January.

On top of all that, legislative Republicans, lobbyists and special interests are bound to file lawsuits on technicalities and do anything they can to derail this proposal.

Robert LaBrant, a longtime lobbyist for GOP causes, is accusing the secretary of state’s election division of giving VNP improper aid in wording the petition. He wants the attorney general’s office to investigate. Others have hinted they might sue because the original printer’s affidavit filed with the Board of State Canvassers left out the name of the petition (it was promptly redone and approved).

Should the proposed amendment reach the ballot, expect millions to be spent on a disinformation campaign to defeat it. Tony Daunt of the Michigan Freedom Fund hinted at one line of attack by claiming it would “take power away from voters to centralize it among a pack of handpicked liberal elites.” That is exactly the opposite of what Voters Not Politicians organizers say their proposal would do. In coming months, we’ll learn if their effort to reform the system has much chance.

***

Sleaze alert:  Remember State Rep. Brian Banks, the Detroit Democrat who was re-elected last year despite having been convicted of eight felonies?  He then resigned in February as part of a plea bargain after being charged with four more.

Well, he has now formed a committee to raise funds to run for the state senate next year – and some experts think he may have a good chance of getting elected, despite a criminal track record and failing to get a single bill passed.  Ever.

An election could come even earlier; the incumbent, State Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) is facing trial in federal court for allegedly putting a phony employee on his state payroll. And no, you just couldn’t make this stuff up.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

August 31, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Sep 1, 2017 at 10:48 am

    That’s for sure; this Mad Hatter’s Imbecilicus knows no bounds. You can’t fix stupid, arrogant, narcissistic, devious, or crazy, only exit yourself or them. With all the troubles in the US you don’t need to augment them – but Michigan does. Ohio too. Come to think of it, probably all states do.

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