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To kill the gerrymander, elect better representatives

WHAT ROUGH BEAST? Oddly shaped districts, like Michigan’s 14th in the U.S. Congress, are the result of political power plays. But the solution isn’t necessarily to take politics out of the process, argues Brunch columnist Conor Dugan.

WHAT ROUGH BEAST? Oddly shaped districts, like Michigan’s 14th in the U.S. Congress, are the result of political power plays. But the solution isn’t necessarily to take politics out of the process, argues Brunch columnist Conor Dugan.

Rep. Sean McCann, D-Kalamazoo, has proposed legislation that would establish an independent, nonpartisan commission consisting of “regular citizens” to “create legislative district maps that are competitive, geographically compact and contiguous.”

McCann contends his bill would “prohibit creating districts that protect incumbents.” More pointedly, he insists that his proposal would “take politics out of the redistricting process.”

On its face, McCann’s proposal is both attractive and worthy. Who wouldn’t want to end the political machinations that result in electoral districts that resemble poorly cut puzzle pieces and combine cities and towns with little or no relation to each other? And yet, despite McCann’s good intentions, noble goals and political courage – it isn’t easy to take on an ingrained system – I’d like to raise a voice of dissent.

While I share McCann’s goals, I believe his proposal is destined for failure — for a number of reasons.

First are the questions that immediately arise: What are the principles that should and would guide a nonpartisan redistricting commission? What constitutes electoral fairness? In drawing legislative districts, what is relevant to take into account? Natural geographic boundaries? City limits? Racial minority voting strength and cohesion? Political balance between the parties? And if all or some of these should be taken into consideration, one then must ask which principle takes precedence.

For instance, McCann has stated that “Michigan voters deserve political districts that are contiguous and competitive.” Taking that example, which principle, contiguity or competitiveness should trump if they conflict? Does one skew towards a contiguous district even if this leads to a less competitive district or does one start slicing up the district in ways that render it into a jigsaw puzzle piece so as to ensure party parity?

The answers to these questions are not easy. But it should be clear that they are also, in and of themselves, value-laden. How one negotiates them implicitly requires political judgments and considerations. Creating a nonpartisan redistricting committee removes politicians directly from the process of redistricting but it hardly removes politics from the process. (Turning the process over to computers also doesn’t necessarily obtain McCann’s desired goals either.)

Nor is it clear that nonpartisan committees necessarily remove politicians or their concerns from the process. The recent experience of California is a cautionary tale. In 2010 California voters passed a ballot initiative establishing a nonpartisan citizens’ commission to draw and craft congressional districts. As ProPublica has reported, the California process didn’t unfold along nonpartisan lines. Democrats gamed the system by establishing shell organizations, using unions, community groups and others to advocate in “support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests.” (This isn’t a story of Republican nobility however. Reporting suggests Republicans simply didn’t muster up much interest in the process.)

The result: an electoral map that favored Democrats even though “Republican areas actually had higher (population) growth than Democratic ones,” and Democratic gains in California in the 2012 Congressional elections.

The ultimate problem with McCann’s proposal is that it seeks a technocratic solution for a problem that begs for a human one. What we really need is to encourage and promote non-ideologues in both the Democratic and Republican parties.

These are women and men who understand that power is merely a means to an end and that the purpose of politics is to promote the common good. We need to cultivate candidates who put a passion for the good of Michigan over the needs and interests of party. Such women and men will care less about the letter behind an idea’s originator (i.e., R or D) than they do about the idea’s actual substance.

I am not so naïve to think my proposed solution would cause political calculations to cease to be part of redistricting. Rather, they will matter less because the politicians we elect – whether they come from districts that look like Rorschach tests or perfect squares – will be animated primarily by something more than politics. It is up to us now to encourage such people to enter into politics in the first place.

Conor Dugan is an attorney with Warner Norcross & Judd LLP in Grand Rapids, where he lives with his wife and four children. The views expressed here are his own, including his equivocation on a favorite brunch dish: A tie between smoked salmon and waffles. He blogs on the Michigan appellate courts at One Court of Justice. The views and assertions of guest columnists do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

2 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. AMM

    I agree with Conor Dugan. I live in the 14th District, a result of gerrymandering that leaves me feeling that I live on a desert island. I also found it interesting the point of it being ‘perhaps’ the result of politicking….wow, why didn’t I think of that!

  2. Dan Brown

    Stupid! Maybe Mr. Dugan will advocate a constitutional amendment saying, “Michigan voters shall elect non-idealogues whether Democrat or Republican.” A lot of good that would do.

    Until the advantages of gerrymandering are eliminated, both the Republicans and the Democrats will do it when they have the opportunity.

    The whole issue is representation. In the 2012 election for the Michigan House of Representatives, the Republicans received something like 45% of the vote. Common sense would suggest that a representative House would have a membership consisting of something like 45% of the seats instead of the 55% that their gerrymandering gave them.

    Naturally, it seems, the Republicans have no interest in representative government at this time.

    Unfortunately, for some unexplained reason, the Michigan Democratic Party has displayed no interest in knocking out gerrymandering and favoring representative houses of the legislature.

    Equally unfortunate is the absence of advocacy of representative government by a supposedly independent organization like The Center For Michigan. A number of years ago, Phil Power advocated an approach to representation that would be based on a concept of proportionality. Where’s Phil Power now?

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