DETROIT – Following the 2016 presidential election, a major debate among voters was the impact -- or lack thereof -- of the popular vote. But the issue is far more complicated than how popular vote is weighed: It also boils down to how your vote itself is counted.
And on Nov. 6, Michigan voters will decide if the entire system is changed.
Introducing: Proposal 2
When you hit the polls on Election Day, the second of three proposals on your ballot is called The Independent Redistricting Commission Initiative, or the IRCI. The issue at hand is whether the power to draw the state's congressional and legislative districts should be transferred from the state legislature to an independent redistricting committee.
That sounds like a mouthful of technical jargon, but it really boils down to how your vote is counted -- and it all revolves around a process commonly known as gerrymandering.
What is gerrymandering?
To really understand gerrymandering, you have to take a look back in history.
Back in 1812, Massachusetts Gov. (and founding father) Elbridge Gerry drew a contorted district to ensure his party's victory in that year's elections. One political cartoonist pointed out its similar shape to a salamander, and from that day on, the practice of re-drawing maps to skew elections became known as gerrymandering (sometimes also referred to as redistricting).
Why is that part of our political system?
Redistricting actually has a very important purpose in our electoral system. In the Constitution, the founding fathers wrote that each congressperson can represent, at maximum, 30,000 citizens. Now, that number has since increased to roughly 700,000, but the principle remains the same.
To ensure the districts remain balanced, they have to be redrawn every 10 years, when the U.S. Census is taken.
Re-shaping the voting districts is needed to make sure each district has the same number of votes, which, in theory, would mean the district's vote has the same impact.
In theory, it works well, but in practice, redistricting can be taken advantage of.
How could redistricting backfire?
Drawing voting districts is left up to each state's legislature (for the most part -- four states have abandoned the practice). That means whoever holds the majority has the ability to control how the districts are drawn, and in that case, the pen is mightier than the vote.
Gladly. Should I use a food metaphor?
You got it.
So, let's say it's someone's birthday. Everyone sings happy birthday, the candles are blown out on the cake, and it's time to cut it.
You had an unfortunate cake incident a few years back and now your friends don't allow you to cut cakes anymore, (or is that just me?) so you have to hand the job off to someone else.
On your left, you have Kellie. And on your right, Brian. And they don't like each other. But they really like cake. (Corbin is there too but he has no interest in cutting cake. Classic Corbin).
If you give Kellie the knife, she might cut the cake in a way that Brian receives a piece with leftover melted wax on top. And if you give Brian the knife, he might cut the cake in a way that leaves Kellie with only a tiny piece. Either way, the person controlling how the cake is distributed has the ability to cut down how much cake the other person receives.
How is that legal?
Well that gets complicated.
If a court can determine you are carving the districts in a way that disadvantages minorities -- then yes, that is illegal under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
However, redrawing districts to disadvantage the opposing party has never been strictly ruled unconstitutional.
Recently, The U.S. Supreme Court took up a handful of cases on gerrymandering, but punted on them and refused to make any sweeping decisions on the process. So right now, it's a case-by-case basis, with no clear legislation.
"REDMAP" & The 2010 Census
Nearly all of the currently contested district maps stem from remnants of "REDMAP," or, the Redistricting Majority Project.
REDMAP was a GOP initiative started after the last Census in 2010, and its effects on the balance of power in Washington were immense... and it paid off in 2012.
Nationwide, Democrats running for congress that year got 1.1 million more votes, but Republicans sent 33 more members to the House.
But it's not just Republicans who draw safe districts. Democrats do it, too.
In that same year, on both sides of the aisle, incumbent candidates had only a paltry 15% approval rating, yet 90% of House members were re-elected.
What about Michigan?
During the last census and subsequent redistricting, Michigan lost one of its 15 congressional seats because of a population decrease.
Which means, whoever drew the new maps had the ability to not only shore up their own districts, but potentially do serious damage to their opponent. And some would say that's exactly what happened.
Michigan's 9th Congressional District
In 2010 -- pre-census, the 9th District was situated entirely in Oakland County, a generally left-leaning voter poll. And the district was represented by Democratic Congressman Gary Peters.
But, once the new maps were drawn in 2011:
The 9th was contorted and stretched all the way into Macomb County, now mixing in a historically conservative voter base, diluting the impact of Oakland County voters.
But it also curved to include the home of Democratic Congressman Sander Levin.
This forced the two Democrats to either run against each other, or one would have to drop out. Either way, it forces the Democrats to lose at least one seat in the house.
So let's talk about Proposal 2.
If Proposal 2 passes:
After the 2020 census, the new maps will be drawn up by a 13-member independent redistricting commission, made up of randomly-selected citizens, much like jury duty.
If Proposal 2 fails:
The current system would continue. That means, whichever party holds a majority in Lansing will be in charge of drawing the new maps.
Why should I vote yes?
The group behind Proposal 2, "Voters Not Politicians," has launched an aggressive ad campaign, buying up blocks of time on major TV networks, as well as more modern marketing through Gas Station TV.
They have three primary arguments why you should vote yes:
- They feel the current redistricting process does not serve voters, but instead serves the party drawing the lines.
- They argue Proposal 2's passage will afford each vote a greater impact in the overall electoral process.
- They say it will get rid of "safe tickets," which are districts where elected officials don't have to try as hard for your vote, because of a seemingly-guaranteed victory.
Why should I vote no?
Proposal 2's opposition, "The Committee To Protect Voters' Rights," has picked up strong support from The Michigan Freedom Fund. Their primary arguments against the bill are:
- They are worried the language is just too broad, and they fear Proposal 2 would require further legislation in the future.
- They are concerned the average Michigander doesn't know enough about the very delicate redistricting process to effectively choose fair and logical districts.
- They say a randomly-selected citizen voter commission with essentially autonomous authority lacks any formal system of checks & balances.
Local 4/Detroit News Polling Data:
The most recent polls, conducted just last week, say:
- 58.5% of voters support Proposal 2
- 26.5% of voters do not support Proposal 2
- 15% of voters are undecided about Proposal 2
Is there a third option?
Four states -- Washington, Idaho, Arizona and California -- have adopted an either bi-partisan or non-partisan method of redistricting, effectively taking the politicians out of the process.
While that option is not part of Proposal 2, it is important to be aware of all of the alternatives to the current system.
It's all up to you.
Depending on the results of the vote on Nov. 6, Michigan might join those four states in taking the the politics out of redistricting.
And with another Presidential Election in two years, and another U.S. Census too:
Whatever happens next could change the face of Michigan politics.