Cracking and packing: How partisan redistricting impacts your vote and what's being done about it

By Michael Crowe - Political Fellow

DETROIT - Every citizen has one vote, but does each vote really count the same?

Congressional districts are redrawn every ten years following the census, ostensibly to account for population shifts and thus ensure that each district has roughly the same number of voters. But take a closer look at the districts of southeastern Michigan, and you’ll notice some odd shapes.

Michigan’s 14th Congressional District, for example, has been said to resemble a saxophone or a strange snake. This is because it serpentines from southwest Detroit to the Grosse Pointes, lurches over to Farmington Hills, then cuts northeast through West Bloomfield to Pontiac.

Why are some districts so bent out of shape?

The state Legislature is responsible for drawing congressional district boundaries in Michigan (though their changes are subject to a gubernatorial veto). Whichever party controls the state House and Senate when redistricting season approaches has the opportunity to modify the map in their favor, and they do in a process known as gerrymandering.

The strategy is to dilute the salience of votes for the opposing party by either “packing” many of their likely voters into one district or “cracking,” splitting the opposition’s voters into multiple districts such that their votes effectively do not matter. This results in contorted districts like the 14th.

During the past two redistricting cycles, Republicans have controlled both houses of Michigan’s Legislature as well as the governor’s office. The impact of this was clearly visible in 2016 when, despite receiving 47% of the votes, Democrats won just 36% of Michigan’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

What is being done about it?

In response to Michigan’s history of gerrymandering, the advocacy group Voters Not Politicians has created a ballot proposal that would shift redistricting authority from the Legislature to a 13-person independent committee made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independent members. The proposal has garnered 394,000 signatures, more than the roughly 315,000 it needs.

The Republican-led group Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution has pushed back, however, petitioning the courts to block the ballot proposal on the grounds that it would impact so much of the state constitution that a constitutional convention is required.

The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed. It unanimously ruled on June 7 that the proposal can go on the November ballot, finding that it “is not a general revision of the constitution” but “narrowly tailored to address a single subject.”

Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution has subsequently asked the Michigan Supreme Court to stay the lower court’s decision and hear the case. The Supreme Court has thus far been mum, but the Michigan Board of State Canvassers unanimously certified the ballot proposal at a June 20 meeting.

Barring Supreme Court action, the proposal will appear on the November ballot, and voters will have the opportunity to decide who they want to take charge of redistricting efforts going forward. The result could literally reshape the political landscape in Michigan.

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