Kevin Deegan-Krause held up an oddly shaped Lego creation last week and asked a crowd of about 150 people in Plymouth, “Can a creepy lizard threaten democracy?”
His red and blue depiction of the sprawling 14th Congressional District didn’t look like a creepy lizard. His son thinks it looks like a saxophone, while his daughter says it resembles an assault rifle — even including an open spot for a trigger where Farmington has been carved out of the district.
The Lego blocks may not look like the Massachusetts congressional district drawn in 1812 that spawned the term gerrymander — that district looked like a salamander and was combined with the name of the Massachusetts governor at the time, Elbridge Gerry. But Deegan-Krause’s teaching tool is a pretty accurate representation of the 14th Congressional District and a classic example of how gerrymandering is happening in Michigan.
The Wayne State University political science professor has joined an effort — the Voters Not Politicians Ballot Committee — that is hoping to get a proposal on the 2018 ballot that will change the way legislative districts are drawn for state and federal offices.
“Voters should choose their politicians, not the other way around,” he said at the Plymouth town hall meeting, one of 35 held around the state in recent weeks to educate and recruit volunteers for the ballot proposal effort.
After the U.S. Census is taken of the nation’s population every 10 years, legislative districts are redrawn at the county, state and federal level to reflect population shift. In Michigan, state and federal district lines are drawn by the Legislature and in the last two redistricting cycles, Republicans have been in control of the state House, Senate and governor’s office, resulting in maps that have given a distinct advantage to GOP candidates.
In 2012, Michigan Democrats received 52% of the votes cast for state House, but won 46% of the seats. In 2014, Democrats received 51% of the votes for the state House, and won 43% of the seats. And in 2016, Democrats received just under 50% of the votes for the state House, and again won 43% of the seats.
In congressional races in 2016, Democrats received 47% of the votes, but won just 36% of the seats. Republicans now hold a 9-5 majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and that balance is expected to change again after the 2020 Census when the state is expected to lose another congressional seat because of the state’s relatively stagnant population.
If the maps were drawn ito represent Michigan being much closer to a 50-50 split — in the 2016 presidential election, Republican Donald Trump received 47.5% of the vote while Democrat Hillary Clinton was only 10,704 votes behind with 47.3% of Michigan's presidential tally — , Deegan-Krause said the partisan makeup of Congress should be 7-6 after the 2020 Census, with either party holding a one-seat advantage. But the current redistricting model would continue Republican domination.
“This is a long tradition in American politics and not a particularly nice one,” Deegan-Krause said. “Today, with technology and data readily available about where you shop and what you drink and drive, you draw these maps with a lot more specificity. We can do it with surgical precision.”
Attempts to change that dynamic are happening on four fronts:
- The ballot initiative began earlier this year with the group advocating for a constitutional amendment to create an independent commission to redraw the lines. The effort will require the collection of a minimum of 315,654 signatures from registered voters to qualify for the ballot. Amelia Quilon, marketing director for the group, said it will develop the language of the proposal, including the makeup of the commission, and present it to the state Board of Canvassers later this spring. That will start a 180-day clock for the group to gather the necessary signatures and gear up for what is expected to be a $10-million campaign.
- State Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, has introduced legislation to create a 14-member independent commission, made up of five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents, that will be in charge of redrawing the lines. That bill is coupled with another proposal, sponsored by Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, that would amend the state’s constitution to allow for the commission.
- Mark Brewer, an attorney and former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, is poised to file a federal lawsuit, challenging Michigan’s legislative districts as a partisan gerrymander designed to specifically benefit Republicans. He’s looking toward Wisconsin, where a panel of federal judges ruled 2-1 that district lines approved by the Wisconsin Legislature deprived Democratic voters of their rights to be represented, violating the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. constitution. That case is headed toward the U.S. Supreme Court.
- And a group headed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and endorsed by former President Barack Obama, is looking to change the dynamic that has resulted in Republicans gaining control of all branches of government in 25 states and partial control in 20 more. Former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, who was the 2014 Democratic candidate for governor is a senior adviser to the group, which is looking to support ballot initiatives and redistricting lawsuits around the country, as well as working to elect Democrats in 2018, especially in governor’s races in states (like Michigan) where the governor can veto gerrymandered maps.
The efforts are driven by the beliefs that legislators shouldn’t be in control of a process that ultimately will determine their fate and that voters deserve lawmakers who better reflect the partisan make-up of the state.
“I live in ground zero of the problems with gerrymandering,” Moss said. “Right now, you’ve got Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills and West Bloomfield in three different congressional districts. The districts are wildly wrapped around each other. There’s a certain absurdity to it.”
For Schauer, there’s a personal element to his involvement. He won a seat in Congress during the Democratic wave of 2008, lost the seat to U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, in the following election and tried to get the seat back in 2012, but the district had been redrawn to include more Republican-leaning areas and Walberg was re-elected..
“I think a lot has been learned about the Republican gerrymander of 2011 and I’m a poster child of that,” he said. “Yeah, I’ve been a victim, but it’s not about me personally, it is about the policies that result when the composition of the Legislature and Congress is out of line with the partisan makeup and the will of the people. It’s a distortion of our democracy.”
But Bob LaBrant, an attorney with the Sterling Corp., a Lansing-based Republican consulting firm, said he’s leery of handing "the biggest political decision in a decade" to an independent commission.
“The issue is who is going to comprise the commission. My eyes started to glaze over when I read (the state Legislature's) proposal . There are all sorts of auditors involved and they’re looking at someone who is open- minded, whatever the heck that means,” he said. “It seems to be a terribly cumbersome process with little or no accountability. How independent are these commissions in reality.”
He also noted that 2001 and 2011 were aberrations when Republicans had total control of the redistricting process.
“As I look ahead to 2018 and 2020, I think we have a better likelihood that Democrats are going to control the governor’s office or maybe one of the chambers,” and then there will be a more bipartisan redistricting process, LaBrant said. “Elections have consequences.”
Deegan-Krause goes back to the 14th District — which meanders from the Grosse Pointes, through the northern tier of Detroit over to west Oakland County and picking up a swath of Oakland up to Pontiac — as the perfect reason that a change is needed.
"The funny shapes are a sure sign that something funny is going on," he said. "These are the kinds of lines we draw when we decide beforehand who our representatives are going to be."
How the state redraw legislative district lines
- Legislatures in 36 states, including Michigan, redraw the lines
- 5 states — Arizona, California, Idaho, Iowa and Washington — have independent bodies for redistricting
- 2 states — Hawaii and New Jersey — have a politician commission made up of elected officials or their appointees, but not the Legislature.
- Seven states have only one congressional district, so they don't have to redraw lines.
- Source: Brennan Center for Justice