Congressional and Legislative Redistricting Reform
With the U.S. Census Bureau’s release of the 2010 population counts, states are set to begin the process of redrawing electoral district boundaries. Voters elect members to the U.S. House of Representatives and to both chambers of the state legislature from districts. How voters are grouped into these districts therefore affects who the representatives are and what policies representatives implement.
As a fundamental part of our democracy, federal and state laws govern the redistricting process. The U.S. Constitution mandates equal representation among districts, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires that states provide minority groups an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. Most states have secondary guidelines to govern and constrain the redistricting process. The most common requirements are that districts adhere to political boundaries, preserve communities of interest, and be contiguous and compact.
Michigan’s legislative redistricting laws have undergone a number of changes since adoption of the 1963 Michigan Constitution. Article IV, Sections 2 through 6, of the Constitution originally defined Michigan’s legislative redistricting approach. However, in 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court found that standards used to create districts based on anything other than population were in violation of the “one man, one vote” provisions of the federal Constitution, and in 1982, the Michigan Supreme Court invalidated Michigan’s redistricting provisions because one requirement violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the other provisions were non-severable from the violating section. Although the Michigan Supreme Court prescribed criteria that a special master used to draft the redistricting plan after the 1980 census, it was not until 1996, when the state legislature passed Public Act (PA) 463, that Michigan again had guidelines for legislative redistricting. These requirements comprise provisions for a population variance of five percent above or below the ideal district size,1 upholding precedents related to the Voting Rights Act, preserving political boundaries, contiguity, compactness, and single-member districts.
Because the state legislature, with gubernatorial approval, has the authority to change state statute but cannot change the state Constitution without a vote of the people, redistricting provisions outlined in statute do not bind the legislature. Case in point: PA 221 of 1999, the Congressional Redistricting Act, established guidelines for drawing Michigan’s congressional districts. The guidelines comprised provisions for strict population equity, upholding the Voting Rights Act, preserving political boundaries, contiguity, compactness, single-member districts, and numbering districts. In 2002, a group of voters challenged the redistricting plan that the 2001 legislature passed, contending in part that the plan failed to comply with PA 221 of 1999. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, opined that PA 221 of 1999 is not binding beyond the 1999 legislature because, in essence, when the 2001 legislature approved the congressional redistricting plan, the statute they passed superseded the provisions of PA 221 of 1999. Thus, this opinion also puts PA 463 of 1996 in question.
Given how critical redistricting is to representative democracy, Michigan legislators should use this redistricting cycle to do more than redraw boundaries. Legislators should draft a constitutional amendment to reform the process and provide clear guidelines for future redistricting. The Citizens Research Council of Michigan recommends that the legislature introduce a constitutional amendment to amend Sections 2 through 6 of Article IV of the 1963 Michigan Constitution and enshrine in the constitution provisions to:
- Recreate a redistricting commission,
- Limit redistricting to once per decade,
- Describe the appropriate redistricting procedures and timeline,
- Increase transparency and public engagement,
- Protect electors’ right to challenge redistricting plans,
- Minimize population variance among districts,
- Ensure contiguous single-member districts,
- Create district boundaries that adhere to political boundaries, and
- Protect communities of interest.
To ensure that the process occurs in a way that minimizes bias and to ensure that districts have the preferred characteristics, it is necessary to amend Michigan’s Constitution with valid and binding language. District boundaries determine from which voters a candidate must gain support, creating an incentive for a redistricting entity to try to bias districts to advantage one group over another–called gerrymandering. While it may be too difficult to isolate the effects of gerrymandering to measure them, most experts agree that gerrymandering distorts voters’ choices and undermines the legitimacy of our democracy. These experts argue that a transparent redistricting process–outlined in a state’s constitution, offering opportunities for public engagement and minimizing political control–can do much to deter gerrymandering and uphold the integrity of the political system.
Unless valid constitutional provisions are adopted, redistricting in Michigan will continue to occur in a legislatively-devised and legislatively-adjustable framework. This paper recommends that the legislature take advantage of this redistricting cycle to put in place constitutional standards to guide the redistricting process for future years. 1 The total state population, typically per the decennial census, divided by the number of seats in a legislative body.