By YOUSUF ALI, Opinions Editor
In the 2016 election, Democrat Hillary Clinton lost Michigan to Republican Donald Trump by a little more than 10,000 votes (0.2% of votes cast), yet Michigan returned nine Republicans from its 14-member delegation to the House of Representatives. This number has not changed since districts were redrawn in 2010, except for a special election in which Thaddeus McCotter was briefly replaced by a Democrat. This is despite the fact that both of Michigan’s Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters are Democrats as well. At first glance, all of these facts seem conflicting; however, when one learns about how congressional districts are drawn, they make all too much sense.
Every 10 years, the United States performs a census on its citizens, and from this census, the the number of congressional seats is allocated. Understandably, this number usually changes, and the borders of each district are redrawn. At this point, the process distorts democracy. The fundamental problem is that in almost every state, the people responsible for drawing the district lines of both the state and national legislators are the very legislators will have to be running in those same districts. As a result, every 10 years, the party that happens to have the majority in the state legislator will choose boundaries which limit the number of districts that favor other party while maximizing the number of their own. This process is known as “gerrymandering.” As it relates to Michigan, the Republicans have had the majority in 2000 and 2010 and have been able to maintain a majority in the state senate for decades. As hopeless as the situation seems, there is a scenario which could conceivably end this predicament.
In Michigan, the legislative districts are drawn by legislators, but subject to the governor’s veto, and that fact may provide us a way out of this precarious condition. As a democrat, the ideal situation would be to take control of the governorship and the both houses of the state legislator, allowing us to draw the lines in our favour, but, as someone who likes democracy, that would be no better. True redistricting reform would require the process to be non-partisan. In 2018, there will be statewide elections for the governor, as well as the entire state legislature. Even the staunchest of democrats accept that the state senate will not change for reasons already mentioned; however a shift in the governorship and even the House is a very real possibility. Given the role that the state government had to play in creating and covering up the Flint water crisis, it’s hardly any surprise that Michigan ties with Wyoming as the worst state in terms of government integrity. If the democrats can emphasize the role that Rick Snyder’s administration had in creating this situation, there could be shift significant enough to deliver them the governor’s mansion paving the way towards fair redistricting.
As far off as this scenario may seem, it has led to genuine redistricting reform before in at least one other state. In 2010, California found itself in an interesting situation. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, had just been re-elected as governor of a state with a democratic-controlled legislature. As a result, the the state had to come up with another way to redraw its congressional districts without involving a governor or legislator who would never agree with one another. As such, voters of California overwhelmingly approved Proposition 20, establishing an independent redistricting commission. Now, elections in California are more competitive than they have been in a long time. In Michigan, there is already a similar effort led by a group called “Voters Not Politicians”, advocating for a similar ballot initiative to be placed in the 2018 election. Also, the presence of this initiative may have increased turnout from voters who understandably believe that their vote normally does not count. The group is hosting events throughout the state to gather support for their cause. I highly recommend that people attend.
The fundamental problem with the redistricting process in this country and this state is that it puts the power to create districts in the hands of the very people who will be running in those districts. Even though Michigan generally leans democratic, the state legislature remains firmly in the hands of the republicans because they happened to be controlling both the governor’s mansion and the legislature in 2010 and 2000 with Rick Snyder and John Engler. The 2018 election offers the people of Michigan a unique opportunity to take that power from either of the parties and put it where it belongs: the citizens. This could be done either through forcing a situation in which a republican-led legislature has to compromise with a democratic governor or by voters directly instructing the state not to allow elected officials gerrymander a party into power for a generation. With that, I appeal to all Michiganders who care about democracy to support such reform.