A ballot initiative aims to change the way Michigan draws the boundaries of legislative districts following the census.
Redistricting can have a big impact on the state’s politics by affecting the demographics of districts. Right now, state lawmakers are in charge of drawing the maps for state and congressional districts.
But critics say this is the wrong way to do it. They're advocating a new method they argue will be more independent.
“It seems to me antithetical to democracy that the people who are trying to win an election are deciding who their voters are going to be,” says Bryan Boettcher of Traverse City. He says politicians are gerrymandering in Michigan, meaning they’re manipulating the boundaries of districts to get the results they want.
Former Rep. Bart Stupak spent 18 years as a Democrat in the U.S. House, representing northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. He left in 2011. Over the years, he saw the 1st Congressional District’s boundaries change.
In 2001, Traverse City - along with Kalkaska, Leelanau and Benzie Counties - was drawn out of the 1st District. After that, Stupak represented people farther down the shore of Lake Huron towards Bay City.
“Their issues were a lot different than, let’s say Traverse City, or Leelanau or Frankfort,” Stupak says, “and I had represented Traverse City, Frankfort and Leelanau … for ten years.”
After the 2010 census, the 1st District was again redrawn at its southern border, and Traverse City and the surrounding area was once again part of the giant district.
While the geography of the 1st District changed, Stupak doesn’t think this redistricting was such a big deal politically – at least not for northern Michigan.
“It sort of had … pretty much a neutral effect politically on the 1st District but affected all the districts below,” Stupak says. “They then could move around all the districts below … move those borders to create this brand new seat in southeastern Lower Michigan that’s now held by [Republican Rep.] Dave Trott.”
The new seat Stupak is talking about is the 11th Congressional District, which snakes around the western part of metro Detroit. It’s often held up as an example of partisan gerrymandering in Michigan.
A report from the New York University School of Law earlier this year says Michigan has some of the worst partisan gerrymandering in the country.
The paper argues the boundaries of the state’s congressional map are giving Republicans an unfair advantage in elections.
While Republicans have been in power for recent redistricting, Stupak says gerrymandering has a bipartisan history.
“Both sides are guilty. Politicians are drawing it to keep themselves in their safe seats,” Stupak says. “You don’t have any meaningful discussion of the issues in Michigan because these seats are so skewed one way or the other.”
Stupak says he’s encouraged by recent developments in the state.
A ballot campaign called Voters Not Politicians is collecting signatures right now. It wants voters to amend the state constitution to change how redistricting works.
“The status quo is politicians being 100 percent in control of this,” says Voters Not Politicians president Katie Fahey. “And what it has led to are noncompetitive elections. It’s led to people not being listened to. It’s led to a lack of transparency where Michigan is rated one of the worst states for transparency in our government.”
Under the proposal, redistricting would be done by an independent citizens commission. The group would be chosen randomly from a pool of voters, and would include four Republicans, four Democrats and five people who are independents or members of a third party. The Michigan secretary of state would administer the program.
“People can be a part of the process the entire way,” Fahey says. “It’s all done out in the open, and it’s being done by people instead of politicians.”
The campaign has its opponents, like Republican attorney Bob LaBrant. He has been involved with redistricting in the state for decades. LaBrant says the ballot proposal is a mistake.
“I think it’s the most complicated, confusing proposal that’s ever going to grace the ballot in Michigan, if they’re successful in getting the signatures,” LaBrant says.
LaBrant is critical of some of the standards the commission would follow. The ballot’s language says that district boundaries should reflect “communities of interest” in the state. That means things like cultural characteristics or economic interests.
“I know what a city is,” LaBrant says. “I know what a township is. I know what a county is. I have no idea what a community of interest is.”
LaBrant says the current system relies on county lines as the building blocks for districts.
He dismisses claims of gerrymandering with the current congressional map.
“I don’t think you can make the claim that this is a partisan gerrymander that’s in violation of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution,” LaBrant says. “I don’t know how you can explain why Michigan Democrats never went to court and challenged the congressional redistricting plan.”
Voters Not Politicians needs to bring in more than 300,000 valid signatures by mid-February to get on the ballot next November. Voters would then need to approve it during the election.
On the more distant horizon, the 2020 census is approaching, and so is the next round of redistricting.
LaBrant has some insight into the future of northern Michigan’s congressional district lines, regardless of what happens with the ballot initiative. He says the state is almost certain to lose a seat in Congress, meaning the 1st district will likely get even bigger. The district already stretches 500 miles.