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Drawing the lines in Michigan

Jun 30, 2015

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, the U.S. Supreme Court has released a flurry of momentous decisions in the last few days covering everything from lethal injection methods to the environment.

The two which drew the most attention were, of course, the rulings which saved the Affordable Care Act, and found that same sex couples have the right to marry everywhere in America.

But the court made another tremendous ruling yesterday that, in effect, said we can take back representative democracy in this state if we want to.

The fact is that our legislature is extremely dysfunctional, at least when it comes to doing anything about today’s major issues.

To cite the most glaring example: For years they have refused to come up with any plan to fix the roads, though lawmakers have been quick to do things like allow motorcyclists to ride without helmets or allow adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples, something now likely unconstitutional.

Their priorities are bizarre largely because Michigan’s legislative districts are grossly gerrymandered to produce top-heavy Republican majorities, no matter how the people actually vote.

In several recent elections, a majority of Michigan voters have cast ballots for Democratic representatives, but we’ve still had Republican legislatures. This is especially true in the state senate, where Republicans have held control for thirty-two years.

They’ve done this by using computer models to pack as many Democrats into as few districts as possible, while making sure that a majority of districts produce smaller, if safe Republican majorities. I’m not saying Democrats wouldn’t do the same thing if they had the chance; they probably would.

But they haven’t, and this becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon, since it means that a Republican legislature always draws the new lines at redistricting time. Because of this, in most districts, the only real races are in the primaries, and since they produce the lowest turnout, we often get winners on the extreme fringes of their party.

This also perverts the process for Democrats. One of their safe districts is now held by a man who has been convicted of eight felonies; another Democratic lawmaker who has few real qualifications was elected because he has the same name as his respected father. The son now faces multiple felony charges.

Thirty-seven states draw their district lines in a similar way, though few have ended up with as dreadful a result.

But in Arizona, outraged voters fought back. They created an independent bipartisan redistricting commission to draw fair lines. Incredible as it may sound, the legislature then tried to stop the people from creating fair representative democracy.

They took the case to the Supreme Court, which yesterday ruled that the people had the right to, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her majority opinion, “address the problem of partisan gerrymandering.”

That means we could do the same in Michigan, and take back the power to elect our representatives.

That won’t be easy. The current legislature and the special interests who control them will do all they can to prevent it.

But if anyone wants to make this state work again and return real representative democracy to the people, leading a drive for an independent redistricting commission may be the best place to start.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.