Revamp system to curtail gerrymandering

August 1, 2017

Efforts to end the politically-rigged process of redrawing electoral districts, known as gerrymandering, that may soon have a realistic chance of progressing at the state and national levels, are actions we believe are both appropriate and necessary.

The belief that a citizen's right to vote is fundamental to a free and democratic society is enshrined in the Constitution's 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, and has been upheld by the Supreme Court, ensuring that each citizen has an "equally effective voice" in their state's elections. To that end, the Constitution requires voting districts be of near equal size in population, and prohibits tactics used to deny minorities the right to an effective vote through redistricting, under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the majority of states, congressional and legislative districts are drawn every 10 years by the state legislature. In Michigan, redistricting guidelines require districts to be compact and contiguous; have population variations of no more than 16.4 percent among districts, and avoid breaking county and municipal lines, unless not doing so would result in population variances of more than 16.4 percent.

Despite state and federal requirements, legislators in Michigan and other states over the years have found countless ways to gain partisan advantage. It was 1812 when the word "gerrymandering" was coined in reference to state senate districts approved by then-Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry. In that redistricting process, one particular district was drawn in such a convoluted way that it appeared to be in the form of a salamander. A newspaper picked up on the amphibian shape and combined it with the governor's last name, leading to the word "gerrymander." 

Today, congressional district maps drawn for Oakland County harken back to those gerrymandered maps of 1812, meandering in such ways to represent snakes, rats, salamanders and a variety of beastly forms. And, while the Republican hold on Michigan's redistricting process has most recently led their opposition to cry foul, Democrats who previously controlled the process defended their actions as part of the "winner take all" game of politics.

Changes in 2012 to the way Oakland County Commission district seats were drawn are a prime example of types of political games those fighting for control will play. For more than a century, county commission districts were drawn by a bi-partisan committee made up in-part by elected administrators. That was, until the county began skewing more Democratic, and L. Brooks Patterson successfully stepped in to push a bill through the legislature to give the Republican-majority on the commission the authority to draw their own districts because the process no longer favored them, done under the guise of saving money for taxpayers as the county reduced the number of board members.

Although we understand gerrymandering and related maneuvers are an inherent part of politics, it doesn't make it better. These games ultimately result in undermining the electoral process by allowing those in power to choose who will vote for them, thus taking the power to choose away from voters. 

Whether or not the electoral system has been so rigged by gerrymandering that it violates the constitutional rights of voters is a topic of debate, and one that will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court later this year. We hope a conclusion sets a standard to limit the degree to which partisan advantage can be cooked into electoral district boundaries. 

Even if the nation's high court provides a means for assessing gerrymandering, changes to the redistricting process are still necessary to limit partisan games. Tasking an independent committee with the responsibility of redistricting is one possible solution, but has resulted in problems in the past and leaves unanswered questions about the appropriate method to use in drawing those boundaries.

As to the current efforts to force a state constitutional amendment through a Michigan ballot initiative, we have yet to see a fully-baked proposal come forward that will rise properly. As such, we aren't yet convinced the current effort is the answer to Michigan's gerrymandering problem. Still, we encourage efforts to address the issue, which will ultimately be determined by a mix of court decisions and voter-initiated changes.

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