Every two years, more than three million Michiganders vote for their lawmakers in Lansing. They cast votes for state representatives every two years; for state senators, every four years.
But many of those votes don’t really matter.
That’s the main conclusion of a study released last week by The Center for Michigan on the effects of political map-making for legislative districts — a process that’s about to begin again.
The most striking finding: “In November 2010 alone, Michigan residents cast more than 1.4 million votes for legislative candidates who had no real shot at winning.”
Why? Because those voters were Republicans trapped in deep-blue Democratic districts and Democrats trapped in deep-red Republican districts. Such districts make up more than two-thirds of all those in the state House, and in them, the races are never close, the outcomes are almost never in serious question, and voters have no real choice at the polls in November.
Some other findings:
“Only about one in seven Michigan residents live in what could be deemed a consistently competitive swing district.” In the Michigan House, only 25 of 110 districts changed party control over the past decade; in the Michigan Senate, only six of 38.
Legislative districts are engineered for partisan political advantage. In recent years, that advantage has been with the Republicans. Over the last 10 years, GOP candidates for the House won 47 percent of the statewide vote and collected 50.7 percent of the total seats; in the Senate, Republicans got 49.3 percent of the votes but took 60.5 percent of the seats. Insiders from both political parties admit they try to redistrict for partisan advantage, whether it’s Republicans (as it was 10 years ago when the lines were last set) or Democrats (which happened in the 1960’s and 1970’s).
The net consequence of this systematic gerrymandering is the practical disenfranchisement of millions of Michigan voters, denied the opportunity to make a difference because the general election results in their districts are never in doubt. A considerable number of Democrats and moderate ticket splitters are trapped in iron-clad Republican districts, while many GOP voters and independents are stuck in solid Democratic districts.
Many party insiders are unapologetic about all this. Dennis Darnoi, a longtime GOP political operative, told Center for Michigan reporters: “Being purely political I can say, ‘To the victors go the spoils.’ The Democrats do the same thing.”
That’s absolutely true.
But Darnoi went on to admit, “From a policy purist standpoint, having so many voters that don’t have a choice violates the underlying principle of voting.”
Which is why The Center carried out its research.
Right now, Republicans in Lansing are getting ready to receive new data from the U. S. Census Bureau next month and re-draw lines for legislative districts that were last set 10 years ago.
Judging from redistricting efforts in the past by both political parties, this process will take place largely in secret and will be designed to cement the GOP’s hold on the state legislature.
The Center for Michigan wanted to shine the bright light of day inside the black box of redistricting right when the process is starting.
Part of the problem is that competitiveness of districts is not one of the requirements of redistricting. Competitive elections – like all forms of uncertainty – are expensive, and thus bad for business.
The business of politics is driven by campaign financing. Deep pockets on the left and the right don’t want to fight expensive advertising battles in every race in the state.
Granted, given the state’s demographics, it’s unrealistic to offer every voter a truly competitive election – Democrats aren’t going to win in Holland and Republicans aren’t going to win in downtown Detroit. But the mapmaking experts say it’s entirely possible to assure more races are, indeed, competitive.
If voters conclude the system is rigged against them, they could quit voting and wind up alienated from our political system.
Witness what just happened in Egypt. We can do better.
I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of folks who have run for the state legislature. Whether Republican or Democratic, those candidates played by the rules we have and won or lost fair and square. But the rules we have and the ways they are carried out deserve clear-eyed scrutiny.
Frankly, I doubt The Center’s study is going to change the outcome of the redistricting process now under way in Lansing. But if it can introduce a few second thoughts in the minds of those who would want to keep the process secret or deny the partisan motivations in play, it will be a big step in the right direction.
Editor’s Note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com.