State ballot proposal aims to end gerrymandering

Alexander Sinn • Oct 24, 2018 at 12:00 PM

Michigan citizens will be in charge of deciding district lines if voters pass a Nov. 6 ballot initiative.

Michigan is currently among 28 states in which its state legislature is in charge of drawing district lines every 10 years following the national Census.

Proposal 2 would amend the Michigan Constitution to create a commission of citizens for this task, eliminating the risk of politicians “gerrymandering” districts to create unfair election advantages.

The commission would enlist 13 independent citizens to meet after each 10-year Census, including four Republican-affiliated, four Democrat-affiliated and five independent members.

Whitt Kilburn, a political science professor at Grand Valley State University, said despite the commission containing left- and right-leaning voters, this system would eliminate the partisanship present in the current redistricting process.

“With Michigan’s proposal, you really are not going to end up with stark-raving partisan ideologues on the commission,” he said. “You end up with people who identify with a party, but not in a way that seems overtly or overly partisan.”

Michigan would not be the first state to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians. California adopted this system in 2008, which Kilburn said has been effective.

“It did reduce the pro-Democratic bias that was drawn into districts previously,” he said. “There’s no reason that we couldn’t do that in Michigan.”

The proposed amendment would prohibit partisan officeholders and candidates, their employees, certain relatives and lobbyists from serving as commissioners. New criteria would be established, “including geographically compact and contiguous districts of equal population, reflecting Michigan’s diverse population and communities of interest,” the proposal states.

Funds would be appropriated for commission operations and commissioner compensation.

“There’s no reason Michiganders — no matter what they do in their day job — can’t get together with another group and come up with a reasonable drawing of the district lines,” Kilburn said. “Most of us would have faith in our fellow citizens to be able to do this.”

How it works

Gerrymandering occurs when legislators deliberately slice districts in various ways to split up voting demographics and create political advantages.

Gerrymandering can occur by:

— Cracking: Districts can be “cracked” apart to split demographics, spreading out voting power.

— Packing: Voters from an opposing party can be packed into a few districts.

— Kidnapping: District lines can be drawn to remove incumbent politicians from their home district.

— Hijacking: A political candidate can be packed into a district with an established leader of the same party. This forces the candidates to run against each other in a primary, removing them from competing with the other party’s neighboring district.

Local districts favor Republicans 

Elections in Michigan’s 2nd Congressional District have provided easy victories for Republicans in recent decades, according to Kilburn. The last Democrat to represent the district was Weston Vivian, 1965-67.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, was elected with more than 60 percent of the vote in 2012, 2014 and 2016. In this year’s race, FiveThirtyEight — a website owned by ESPN/ABC News that focuses on opinion poll analysis, politics, economics and sports blogging — gives Huizenga a 97.4 percent chance of re-election over Democratic challenger Dr. Rob Davidson.

Kilburn could not confirm whether this trend has been influenced by gerrymandering.

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash — a Republican who represents Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes the city of Grand Rapids — has raised concerns over the drawing of districts in 2011. The Libertarian-leaning lawmaker was concerned that Kent County was split in a way he described as “unusual.”

Amash has supported the idea of an independent process for drawing districts.

Recent polling indicates public support for Proposal 2, but if the initiative does not pass, the prospect of such a commission would be unlikely, Kilburn said.

“It would take an enormous amount of political pressure to convince the Legislature to act on its own,” he said. “This is an appropriate exercise in direct democracy.”

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