April 15, 2016
So, how to describe what has happened in recent days to destroy desperately needed election reforms in Michigan?
Last week, the months-long effort to end partisan gerrymandering in Michigan quietly died. The League of Women Voters, which led this crusade, pulled the plug due to indifference. The building blocks toward serious election reforms came crashing down. And hardly anyone noticed.
The LWV took the reins last year to push for redistricting reform, to end an outrageous process in which the party in power draws district borders that blatantly favor their team. The LWV received widespread praise as it held 35 town hall meetings across the state to explain how the manipulative, squiggly lines that divide our legislative districts – for Congress, state Senate, state House, county boards – are blatantly manipulated through power politics to give one political party an advantage.
The LWV pointed out that, over time, both political parties have played this game. The result is this – noncompetitive November general elections across the state have little impact, to the point that most incumbents from each party seeking re-election need only survive the low-turnout August primary to maintain their job.
While other states march toward reforms to outlaw this arcane form of democracy, the League warned time and again that Michigan remained mired in a system where we allow the politicians to pick their voters, rather than the other way around.
Lack of leadership
Out of the League’s efforts, a 2016 ballot proposal calling for the creation of an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission – similar to the actions taken in some states — was expected to bear fruit.
Instead, it died on the vine. The impact of big money – and an all-encompassing lack of leadership – prevailed over good government. The LWV made clear that they lacked the finances to launch a statewide petition drive but no one – no one – stepped forward to fill the void.
As a result, Michigan’s rigged election process lives on.
Here’s the bottom line:
The combined votes cast statewide in November 2014 gave an overall majority of support to the Democratic candidates for Congress, state House and state Senate. But, due to the gerrymandered districts, the GOP emerged with a 9-5 edge in congressional seats, a solid 63-47 advantage in state House seats, and a 27-11 super-majority in the state Senate.
That is gerrymandering in its most raw form.
Both parties guilty
At some point in the future the roles will be reversed: A Democratic majority in Lansing will draw convoluted maps to preserve seats for their party in Congress and the Legislature, even as GOP candidates capture more votes statewide.
Meanwhile, last year aggravated Democrats at the state and national level poisoned the atmosphere leading the campaign for redistricting reform. They turned the issue into a Democratic talking point.
This counterproductive effort was led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill and, in Michigan, by former state Democratic Party chairman Mark Brewer. Brewer held a number of competing town halls on redistricting reform at the same time as the LWV sessions.
Another key player in this mix of partisan advocacy was Mark Schauer, the former Democratic congressman who lost to Gov. Rick Snyder in the 2014 gubernatorial race. Schauer travels the country in his new role as leader of “Advantage 2020,” a project designed to help Democrats gain control of more state legislatures by emphasizing the redistricting issue. Beyond baldly partisan efforts, many of these redistricting strategies seem quaintly out of date.
College kid shows it’s not complicated
The idea that drawing legislative boundaries is a complex process that very few understand has been wiped out by new technology. Across the nation, computer geeks have demonstrated an effortless ability to improve upon the mapping process in state after state, creating square, compact districts that ignore partisanship and incumbency. Digital data has transformed the redistricting process, which is designed to redraw equal districts in each state based on new U.S. Census Bureau population data.
The controversial Michigan district lines established by Republicans in 2011 resulted in an embarrassing rebuke by the Michigan Center for Election Law. The center held a competition for members of the public to create fairer district maps and the winner – putting the Legislature to shame – was the president of the College Republicans at Central Michigan University. Nathan Inks said at the time that he was embarrassed by the gerrymandering integrated into the maps that received final approval in the GOP-run Legislature:
“As a lifelong Republican, when I saw District 14 (for Congressman John Conyers) from the proposed map, even I cringed because of how awkward and mangled it was. Such gerrymandering takes the focus off of the good things the GOP has done for the state and makes the party look like they need to ‘cheat’ to win.”
A petition drive operated as a statesman-like effort could have effectively challenged this scam, but no one took the lead. One key reform advocate, Jocelyn Benson, the 2010 Democratic candidate for Michigan Secretary of State and founder of the Center for Election Law, seemed to recognize the need for a nonpartisan approach as much as anyone. But Benson, now the dean of the Wayne State University Law School, failed to generate the momentum for a petition drive.
A statesman-like bipartisan front on this issue could have been promoted by leaders of considerable stature and political connections, such as former Michigan senators Carl Levin, a Democrat, and Spence Abraham, a Republican.
Follow the money
Yet, in the end, the monied interests won out. It takes hundreds of thousands of signatures to put an issue on the Michigan ballot. In the current political atmosphere, that means millions of dollars must be raised to complete the arduous petition signature process and mount a campaign.
This is no longer grassroots democracy engineered by earnest volunteers. This tainted process amounts to hiring a petition signature company, often from out of state, that charges hefty fees.
What’s more, the dollar threshold is on its way up as California, the nation’s center of ballot-proposal democracy, has seen the price of petition circulators rise this year to $5.50 per signature.
So, explaining the events of recent days in Michigan requires an understanding that ballot access increasingly is limited to special interests and superPACs, not good-government reformers and activists.
Follow the money and you’ll realize why commonsense redistricting reform in Michigan died on April 7, 2016.
A freelance writer from Macomb County, was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.