Citizens lose when one party draws boundaries for representation

By Mark Totten
The once-a-decade event where Michigan politicians pick their voters for the next 10 years is coming to a close.

The winner? Partisan politics.

The losers? The citizens of our state.

There’s nothing illegal about what’s happened – in fact, the system worked as designed. But that doesn’t make it right. And it certainly doesn’t mean it has to be this way.

The event is called redistricting: the redrawing of boundaries for congressional districts, as well as state and local legislative seats. Although the U.S. Constitution and federal law play some role in shaping this process, it’s largely governed by state law.

In Michigan redistricting is entirely in the hands of partisan politics. The state Legislature agrees to a map and the governor signs off, with the state courts resolving any legal challenges. When all branches of government are in the hands of one party – as they are now and they were in 2001 – there’s little to keep partisan interest from winning the day.

This decennial game is obscure and overlooked, but its implications are enormous. Subject to some restraints by state and federal law, legislators have broad license to draw lines that favor their political party and even their own political aspirations. One of the most toxic effects is that legislative districts are drawn to maximize the number of “safe seats” and minimize the number of districts contested between the parties.

We can see that happening right here in Kalamazoo County. Take the 61st state House District, which includes the city of Portage and the townships of Texas, Oshtemo, Kalamazoo, Alamo and Prairie Ronde.

At the beginning of the last decade this district was reliably Republican (think Jack Hoodendyk). Although the district continues to favor Republicans even today, over the past decade the 61st (like the rest of the county) has been trending Democratic and depending on the year could be a contested seat.

So it’s no surprise that the new 61st District cuts out the most Democratic portion of the district – Kalamazoo Township – and places it in the 60th District, which primarily includes the city of Kalamazoo. The result? The already safe 60th seat becomes uber-Democratic and the 61st becomes more predictably Republican.

Why care? What’s wrong with trying to concentrate as many people in one district on the basis of partisan identity? Well, part of the problem is that this partisan line-drawing tends to leave people in the political center under-represented. But perhaps even more problematic is that it tends to make it more difficult to reach political compromise – so necessary for pragmatic, solutions-oriented governing.

Politicians have more reasons to ignore the concerns of people in their district who affiliate with the opposing party, while being holdouts for their own. When it comes to democracy, lines matter.

For the last two decades these abuses have been at the hands of Republicans, who held every branch of government. But don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a problem with one party. If Democrats were in this position of power they’d almost certainly do the same thing.

Moreover, the problem isn’t so much conniving politicians (though I’ll admit, I still yearn for a leader willing to stand up for people even when doing so is at odds with her own party). Rather, our way of drawing the lines reveals the limits of politics.

Is there a better way? In principle I favor elected officials making these decisions. With terms of two or four years, politicians by design should have the best incentives to be responsive to the people.

But here’s the problem: With the rare exception, when it comes to drawing the lines politicians hold out for their party every time. Why? Because we don’t hold them accountable to do otherwise. Redistricting, by and large, falls off our list of cares.

Given this predicament, other states have experimented with reform. Last year the governor of Virginia created an Independent Bipartisan Advisory Commission to gather citizen input and propose a map, while leaving the ultimate decision in the hands of the state legislature. Other states have gone further. Colorado, California, and Idaho all have independent citizen commissions with final responsibility for drawing the lines.

When it comes to redistricting reform, Michigan has been on the sidelines. We can do better. Government by the people demands it.

Mark Totten teaches law and ethics at Michigan State University and resides in Oshtemo Township with his wife and two kids.