Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Let the voters pick the politicians, not the pols pick their voters

Yesterday an organization that calls itself Voters Not Politicians submitted 430,000+ signatures to Michigan's Secretary of State for an initiative to reform the process through which legislative and Congressional boundaries will be drawn after the 2020 Census. They want an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission of registered Michigan voters to draw districts using guidelines that ensure fairness, instead of just enshrining the power of whatever partisan legislators happen to be in office when the lines are drawn.

Gerrymandering -- jiggering district lines to get a desired result -- used to be a quite primitive process involving a fair amount of guesswork about which neighborhoods could be counted on to vote in what way. Sure, it often worked, but it was crude. Today election software makes it easy to use histories and the demographic characteristics of voters to lump us into groups whose leanings predict which party and even what sort of candidate will win in any set of boundaries. Just about the only way such gerrymandered districts change their partisan leanings is when people move in and out. Most elections just ratify the status quo rather than reflecting voter opinions.

Though Republicans were widely successful in drawing favorable Congressional districts for themselves in 2010 (because they had just won many state legislative contests), some of what they did was extreme enough so it is being challenged in court -- because effectively a well done gerrymander disenfranchises people whose votes can never count for a winning candidate. Federal courts have intervened repeatedly in North Carolina where gerrymandering reduced the effective power of Black voters. The Supreme Court is considering a Wisconsin case in which Republicans had managed to draw lines that yielded them 60 of the 99 seats in the Wisconsin Assembly despite winning only 48.6% of the two-party state-wide vote. The outcome of the case is uncertain; courts don't want to get into the job of examining the fairness of district boundaries because judges fear they'd be inundated with hard cases. And unless they can come up with unusually clear standards, that's almost certainly true.

Michigan voters are proposing to take the line drawing away from the politicians.

As a Californian, I've seen this in action. The Congressional lines drawn here after the 2000 census amounted to another kind of gerrymander: an incumbent protection plan. Sitting Congresspeople and legislators avoided a fight by drawing boundaries that tended to keep them in office, regardless of party. This worked fine for the politicians. In 2004, just three of the 53 districts were won with less than a 60 percent majority. Only one Congressional seat changed party during that decade!

Significant numbers of California voters felt disenfranchised, so we passed Prop. 11 in 2008 followed by Prop. 20 in 2010, giving responsibility for reapportionment to a Citizens Redistricting Commission. The result was a significant shakeup among Congressmembers; some members retired after losing their safe districts while quite a few seats became more competitive. Both political parties hate losing their chance to draw their own seats, but we probably have somewhat more competent and attractive politicians among the new crop. So far, this electoral gimmick seems to work for more representative governance.

California currently elects 39 Democrats and 14 Republicans to Congress -- not an unreasonable split given the partisan lean of state voters. Democrats hope to win even more Congressional races in 2018 since seven districts currently held by Republicans voted for Clinton in 2016. Republicans are targeting at least one highly competitive seat they hope to flip. When districts are reasonably fairly drawn, such changes become possible.

Michigan has 14 Congressmembers, currently divided 9 Republican and 5 Democratic. None of the incumbents had less than a 12 percent margin of victory in 2016 -- that is, none of the seats was competitive between the parties. Yet the state as a whole could hardly be more competitive. Donald Trump won Michigan with 47.50 percent of the vote to Clinton's 47.27. It seems very likely that a non-partisan redistricting commission could provide more fairness to the choices that are offered to Michigan voters. Voters Not Politicians collected their initiative signatures with volunteers hardly any support from established political players! This effort has the feel of a movement.


Rain Trueax said...

I am amazed it's ever been constitutional. It's why '18 matters so much. I wish all states would make it non-partisan and have the districts where they are easiest to get to polls. Gerrymandering and Ohio losing a Representative due to less population cost us Dennis Kucinich.

Brandon said...

My hometown paper today reprinted a Dallas Morning News editorial under the title "We Can't Afford to Politicize the 2020 Census." It mentions the "troubling ... reported interest" by the White House in Thomas Brunell to be the deputy director of the Census Bureau. It adds, "Here's a guy who testified on behalf of partisan defendants in gerrymandering cases who argues against the benefits of having a mix of Democrats and Republicans in voting districts."

In 2008 Brunell wrote Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America.

"Redistricting and Representation argues that competition in general elections is not the sine qua non of healthy democracy, and that it in fact contributes to the low levels of approval of Congress and its members. Brunell makes the case for a radical departure from traditional approaches to redistricting – arguing that we need to 'pack' districts with as many like-minded partisans as possible, maximizing the number of winning voters, not losers."

janinsanfran said...

Yes, Brandon, there is a threat to the integrity of the census from the GOPers and Trump. They've already refused to fund the preparation adequately, as they have so many other government departments that get in their way, including the IRS. And this Brunell sounds like very bad news.

The Republican Party simply doesn't like the emerging demographics of the country.

One reason I like this Michigan effort is that it seems like they are trying to ensure the majority rules. That seems pretty elementary, but folks who are losing have a hard time with it.