Gerrymandering is a long-practiced tactic employed by the political parties, but it is only recently that voters have reached their tipping points and started to push back. Discontented voters in several states are pushing reforms, but have not identified a common approach to curb practices that give advantage to a political party. Some have sought reform through the courts, others at the ballot box. With such variation in practice and culture among the states, voters in different states have been presented with several distinct reform proposals.
The United States is a big country. The populations of individual states have tended to favor each of the major political parties and distrust in government is arguably as deep in Michigan as in any other. All of this is to say that what might work in one won’t necessarily do so in another.
Lawsuits have challenged congressional and legislative maps in Wisconsin, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas and North Carolina as violations of the voters’ rights under the Equal Protection Clause in the U.S. Constitution. Thus far, the courts have not been able to find a standard for the level of gerrymandering deemed acceptable. A Michigan lawsuit remains in the early stages, as participants have monitored other cases further along in the process and ongoing efforts to achieve reform through the initiative.
More variety is evident in efforts to achieve reform through constitutional amendment. To this end, reformers have sought to limit the power of any one party and introduce the need for consensus building into the decision-making process.
One approach has been to require agreement among more participants. In May, Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring 60 percent supermajorities in each legislative chamber to adopt new congressional maps.
Another approach has been to remove state legislatures from redistricting entirely. Following paths blazed by Arizona and California, voters in Colorado, Michigan and Utah will be voting on constitutional amendments on November 6 to create independent citizen commissions that will be responsible for all future congressional and legislative redistricting. Michigan’s Proposal 2 creates, in the state constitution, such a commission and reestablishes criteria for creating maps.
In a different approach, a Missouri proposal would create a non-partisan demographer and vest that office with responsibility for drawing legislative maps subject to approval by a redesigned commission.
Although the proposed reforms in Colorado, Michigan and Utah would ostensibly create independent citizens commissions, Michigan’s Proposal 2 does more to divorce the legislature from the process with the random selection of commissioners. The appointment processes for commissioners in Colorado and Utah would involve individuals with political ties or party leadership.
Likewise, legislative leadership would be responsible for selecting the demographer and commission members in Missouri.
Each of these states have gone further in forcing consensus building into the processes. Whether responsibility remains vested with the legislature or is vested with an independent commission, the proposals offered in each state require majorities that would entail sign off by individuals representing varied interests. The consensus-inducing features of Michigan’s Proposal 2 are as strong as those found in any of these proposals.
Those seeking reform through the courts have offered statistical measures to assess the degree to which gerrymandered maps diminish the value of some votes cast. Despite the fact that the courts have not identified an acceptable statistical measure for this purpose, the plans offered in both Utah and Missouri would require statistical measurement of the drafted maps before they could be adopted.
Critics of Michigan’s Proposal 2 suggest that accountability of the randomly selected commissioners will be a problem because removing commissioners would be very difficult. The Colorado commission also would suffer from minimal levels of accountability for appointed commissioners. Utah and Missouri would maintain higher levels of accountability, but remain susceptible to political interference as a result.
Michigan’s plan also suffers in ensuring commissioners bring the skills desirable to undertake the task at hand. Because prospective commissioners would have to apply, one would presume that they feel they have something to contribute, but Proposal 2 would equitably include all who wish to apply and randomly selects commissioners from that pool. The Colorado proposal would require the judges involved in the appointment process to evaluate the quality of applicants in the pool as part of the selection process. The Missouri and Utah plans would allow political leaders to hand-select commissioners, so they are more likely to choose participants with some kind of credentials or knowledge of the system.
Some look at the increasing levels of political partisanship in Michigan and across the nation as not a desirable direction to continue down. With the U.S. Supreme Court unable to create guardrails for the congressional and legislative redistricting, reform advocates in a few states are attempting to lessen the rancor.
Our federal system leaves the process for establishing congressional and legislative districts to the states. The variety of constitutional structures and political culture among the states means that each state has experienced different levels of gerrymandering and reformers see a variety of paths to address those ills.
The politics of Michigan, Colorado, Missouri, Ohio and Utah are all different. Each state had to craft reforms that addressed their own culture and needs. For that reason, there is no such thing as a perfect plan. Voters in each state will have to decide what good enough looks like.