Michigan Redistricting

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Michigan's method of redrawing congressional and legislative districts once every decade could become less partisan under a constitutional amendment proposed in the state Capitol.
State lawmakers now map their own seats and congressional districts after the once-every-ten-years Census, usually favoring themselves and their political parties.
Republican-drawn boundaries from 2001, for example, are a reason the Michigan GOP still has control of the state Senate and nine of 15 U.S. House seats despite the national wave of anti-war, anti-Republican sentiment that propelled Democrats in last year's election.
State Sen. Glenn Anderson, a Democrat from Westland, introduced a measure last week that would turn the power to establish district lines from the partisan Legislature to a nine-member independent redistricting commission.
"I'm not doing it out of anger that we don't have a majority," he said.
Instead, Anderson says, his purpose is to create more competitive seats in a state whose partisan makeup is nearly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. The current system can be manipulated to protect incumbents and undermine voters' power at the ballot box, he argues.
"This is about strengthening our elective process. When you're able to design a district to benefit a candidate, there is something wrong with that district," Anderson said.
Twelve states have independent redistricting commissions, or IRCs. Under the proposal pitched Thursday and backed by nine other Senate Democrats, final redistricting plans would need approval from two-thirds of the panel members.
While not taking an official position on the plan, Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer agrees redistricting should become fairer and less partisan. But state Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis does not see a problem with the existing system.
Outside observers have mixed reactions to the proposed change.
Redistricting expert and pollster Ed Sarpolus of EPIC-MRA in Lansing says politics cannot be removed from a process in which so much is at stake.
The then GOP-dominated Legislature in 2001 drew new congressional districts to account for shifting populations and the loss of one seat. After the 2002 election, Michigan's congressional delegation went from a 9-7 Democratic majority to a 9-6 GOP majority.
"It's not a cure all by any means," Sarpolus said of the latest proposal, noting that criteria for drawing districts are set into state law and the plans are usually ruled on by judges after being challenged in the courts. "It still goes to court. You still have people suing."
Anderson's plan would have the two major political parties each appoint two members to the panel. Four more members would be named by each of the top Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate.
Those eight -- four picked by Democrats and four by Republicans -- would select one more member, presumably an independent voice. None of the members could have served as an elected or appointed public official or been a political candidate in the three years before joining the panel.
John Chamberlin, a University of Michigan political scientist and chairman of government watchdog group Common Cause Michigan, says a more nonpartisan commission would be an improvement over having the Legislature and governor approve new boundaries.
Seats heavily tilted in favor of one party or the other ultimately hurt the voters, Chamberlin argues. He agrees that in some parts of the state -- the City of Detroit or outlying GOP-dominated areas -- it is not possible to have 50-50 seats up for grabs every election.
Yet not all of Michigan's 15 congressional seats need to be gerrymandered, he says, especially if one purpose of elections is "keeping elected officials on some kind of short leash so they can be accountable to voters."
Chamberlin, however, questions the proposal's requirement of a two-thirds vote of the panel on final redistricting decisions.
"A two-thirds majority is a killer," he said. "That requires somebody to sell out his or her party. You might as well just send it to the courts."
Anderson acknowledges an uphill fight to set up a new system but argues his proposal at the very least starts the debate. Democrats got 54 percent of the statewide vote in Michigan Senate races last year, but the GOP has a 21-17 edge in the chamber.
Anderson says his plan could run into some opposition from some Democrats because if they can maintain their newfound control of the House until after 2010, they will have more say in the next round of redistricting.
The senator is hopeful, however, that Republicans will also be receptive to a less partisan system. Democrats were quick to design districts that protected their own incumbents or made seats more Democrat-leaning when they controlled the Legislature in the 1970s and 1980s.
"I'm not looking to design something to the advantage of one party or another," Anderson said.
To remove redistricting directly from the Legislature, two-thirds of the House and the Senate would need to approve the proposed constitutional amendment, and then it would go to voters on the statewide ballot.

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