April 2017

April 1, 2017

Like many parents, I suspect, as our two boys were growing up we made sure they understood the value of exercising their right to vote, including on more than one occasion dragging them to the voting precinct with us to see how the process worked, starting with the old mechanical voting machines and transitioning to the current method of casting votes, including the absentee ballot which is how for most elections the votes are cast in our household.

We tried to impress upon them the importance of being involved in the election process and the unique system we have in this country of 'one man, one vote,' a system that has been emphasized by the courts since 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court modified the phrase to include women – 'one person, one vote.'

Because they grew up in a home where politics/government was a consistent topic of discussion – thanks to my profession and my spouse's involvement in local government – they eventually started to understand the nuances of our electoral system which is geared toward keeping the dominant political party in power, be it Republicans or Democrats. In other words, it's a 'one person, one vote' system but when you get to the county, state or congressional level, there are limitations thanks to how we draw political districts in Michigan every 10 years following the federal census.

For years political districts in Michigan were drawn up by political leaders in Lansing or at the county level when it came to county commission districts. Then in the 1963 Michigan Constitution, voters saw the wisdom of creating a reapportionment commission. However, every reapportionment plan ended up being contested by one political party or another and the Michigan Supreme Court, in a 1982 decision, abolished the reapportionment commission and authorized the legislature to draw up district boundary plans once again. 

So now, like in many states, the political party in power really controls the shape of the districts for state House and Senate and for the U.S. House, which starts to explain how some districts cut across counties and meander in odd patterns whose logic only those who are in the seat of power can understand. It is called gerrymandering – which means drawing district to gain advantage over another political party. Democrats have done it in the past, although with both legislative chambers and the governor's office in the hands of the GOP here in Michigan, you can forget about any political equity in 

districts that are drawn after the federal census in 2020. Likewise, with the surge of the Tea Party in past elections, the Republican party has more than doubled its control of state legislatures across the country since the 2010 census.

There are about a half dozen states that have started to address the question of political gerrymandering through use of either bipartisan commissions or non-partisan legislative services to redraw districts after each census without consideration of past voting behavior and the current residence of incumbents who hold office. 

Up until now the federal courts have generally only considered population count as its main concern, starting in 1964 when the ruling was handed down that political districts had to focus on equal population counts with only a minor variation allowance. Next, the federal courts have also focused on racial gerrymandering and the voting rights of minority populations. Largely ignored has been political gerrymandering – lest anyone forget, judges are also political animals with at least a whiff of party allegiance.

But that could all be changing thanks to a recent court case last year in the state of Wisconsin and a ruling by a three-judge federal panel which ordered the Wisconsin legislature to draw new legislative district boundaries. The court ruled that Wisconsin's districts violated both the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by denying Democratic voters the right to be represented. This is a first in federal court history – ruling that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional, and it could be a harbinger of what could be in store for the state of Michigan.

You see, the plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case developed a mathematical formula for determining districts that are excessively manipulated along political lines, called an efficiency gap. Interestingly, a list of states with similarly manipulated districts largely done on political considerations was also drawn up. You guessed it – Michigan is on the list and is ranked very closely to Wisconsin in how districts have been carved up to keep the power structure in place as we now know it. 

No one knows if the Wisconsin decision will be challenged at the U.S. Supreme Court level. If it is, then a similar ruling could end up applying on a nationwide basis. As it stands now, the federal court decision only applies to that state.

There could also be a possible statewide vote on the issue of how we draw political districts here in Michigan. A ballot committee group – Voters not Politicians – is starting to hold town hall sessions across the state to discuss placing the issue of apportionment on the ballot, possibly in 2018, I assume as a constitutional amendment that would force a non-partisan panel or commission like those successfully used in other states. It's a tough road to hoe on a statewide petition drive, the cost of which generally is pegged somewhere in the $2-million dollar range. Add to the challenge the fact that while political junkies, politicians, policy wonks and the like understand the issue, to the general voting public it is not an easily understood concept and is low on most peoples' radar, which would explain why in over three decades there has been no push to place this on the ballot.

Although depending on how the petition and corresponding documents are written, I more than likely would support such a drive. But I secretly hope some of the brighter minds in the legal community will follow the Wisconsin example and take this issue to federal court.

It's high time the current system of partisan gerrymandering – which allows the powers in the ruling class to determine the outcome of elections – is overturned. 


David Hohendorf
Publisher
DavidHohendorf@downtownpublications.com

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