This past November, political pundits spoke of a “Blue Wave‘ that was to overtake the midterm elections.
While Democrats did take over some seats during November’s election, it wasn’t quite the wave that many had expected. The November election also asked voters to decide on three proposals, and all three were approved. Proposal 1 legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Proposal 2 will establish a committee to create district boundaries in Michigan. Proposal 3 will establish procedures to make the voting process easier.
While Proposal 1 received the most media coverage leading up to and after the election, Proposal 2 is starting to get more attention.
The constitutional amendment will do several things. First, it will create a commission of 13 registered voters randomly selected by the Secretary of State. Of those 13, four will have to self-identify as a Democrat and four will have to self-identify as a Republican. The remaining five members will self-identify as unaffiliated with major political parties.
It also prohibits partisan officeholders and candidates, their employees, certain relatives and lobbyists from serving as commissioners. Once the committee is formed it will establish new redistricting criteria including geographically compact and contiguous districts of equal population, reflecting Michigan’s diverse population and communities of interest.
These districts also should not provide a disproportionate advantage to political parties or candidates.
It appears, however, that one party could get an advantage once the district lines are redrawn. Recently, Bridge Magazine released an article by Mike Wilkerson who is the publication’s computer-assisted reporting specialist. Prior to writing for Bridge Magazine, Wilkerson worked at the Detroit News in a similar role.
In his article, “Gerrymandering is dying in Michigan. Of old age. No joke,‘ he wrote the population of rural Michigan has dropped significantly since 2000, which likely will force legislative districts to move closer to population centers such as Detroit and Grand Rapids when they are redrawn after the 2020 Census.
Wilkerson said it’s simple demography — the most heavily Republican parts of the state are declining in population or stagnant and those growing the fastest lean Democratic.
That’s going to force whoever draws the next maps to move districts from northern Michigan, where population losses are greatest — and GOP support is highest — farther south into the population centers of metro Detroit and Grand Rapids, according to a Bridge Magazine analysis.
Those changes should give Democrats an advantage during the next round of mapmaking after the 2020 Census, said Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonpartisan policy research organization based in Livonia that has studied gerrymandering in the state.
“What you’re doing is drawing districts that have been historically very Republican into districts that are getting larger and larger (and) into areas of suburban Michigan,‘ he said.
Of the five counties that have added the most people since 2010, only Ottawa County in western Michigan backed Republican Bill Schuette in last November’s governor race. The others, Oakland, Kent, Macomb and Washtenaw counties, supported the winner, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer.
When the new 13 member convenes following the 2020 Census, the panel’s members will be tasked with drawing congressional and state Senate and House districts of roughly the same size. And though the likely loss of a congressional seat will force a substantial redrawing of the state’s 14 districts into 13, Wilkerson said in his article the commission will also have to rearrange the 38 Senate and 110 House seats.
That’s when the musical chairs begin.
For instance, a Bridge analysis of U.S. Census population estimates shows the 110th House seat in the western counties of the Upper Peninsula has lost roughly 3,400 people since 2010, putting it below the number it would need in 2020 to balance the districts.
That means the 110th would have to add parts of neighboring 109th and 108th districts, which have lost a combined 5,000 themselves.
That sets off a cascading effect in which mapmakers would have to balance districts by drawing lines farther and farther south until they hit the state’s growing areas, often in areas where Democrats are predominant.
That means there likely would be fewer districts north of Bay City, where Democrats have struggled to win House seats for decades.
“(Democrats are) going to have a better chance,’’ said Kurt Metzger, a retired demographer who has long studied population trends in Michigan. “They have to be pleased insofar as they will get a better cut at this (because) it won’t be so obviously gerrymandered.‘
Central Michigan Political Science Lecturer Dr. Jeremy Castle said when looking at Wilkerson’s article broadly, he agrees with the assessment but he also would think about reframing the argument. Castle teaches a number of courses for the political science department, including Intro to American Government and Politics, Political Behavior, Intro to Empirical Methods of Political Research, American Legislative Process, Campaigns and Elections and Techniques of Political Research.
He said the redistricting after the 200 and 2010 census disproportionately benefited Republicans because they were in control of the House and the Senate. As a result, Castle said Republicans were able to draw the district in a way that Democrats were disadvantaged, both in the Congressional districts and the state districts.
“My argument would be it is not so much that the new independent redistricting commission is going to favor Democrats but it is likely to make the districts more fairly drawn and competitive and that will favor Democrats,‘ he said.
Castle said during the 2016 elections the three largest margins of victory for the U.S. House in Michigan were all won by Democrats, Reps. John Conyers (62 percent margin), Brenda Lawrence (59 percent margin) and Debbie Dingell (35 percent margin). All of those districts are in the Detroit area and Castle said what that tells him is that region is electing Democrats by huge margins. He also said a lot of Democrats’ votes are getting “wasted‘ because they are winning those elections by such huge margins.
In contrast, Castle said the four closest U.S. House races during the 2016 election cycle were all won by Republicans.
“They (Republicans) are winning their districts by very narrow margins. There aren’t a lot of wasted Republican votes,‘ he said.
Wilkerson said the population changes continue a long-standing trend that would have benefited Democrats after redistricting in 2001 and 2011. Both years, though, the GOP controlled the governor’s office and Legislature, allowing them to draw legislative districts that now are considered among the most unfair in the country.
Republicans crafted districts that not only avoided electoral damage but made their position stronger: a Bridge analysis of the districts showed Republicans had an advantage in 67 seats going into the 2012 elections despite winning 63 seats in 2010.
“But for the actions of the Republicans gerrymandering this (population) shift would have been much more noticeable,‘ Lupher said. “They were able to mitigate it through gerrymandering.‘
No more — unless they can persuade the Democrats and independents on the commission that gerrymandering in favor of the Republicans is a good thing, which is unlikely.
By a 61 percent majority, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved Proposal 2 in November, which takes the power away from legislators and creates a bipartisan citizens’ committee to draw the maps in 2021.
If Democrats or Republicans controlled the 2021 redraw, they could easily turn it to their advantage, said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who tracks redistricting.
Mapmakers create “districts to capture population you want to capture and you avoid those areas that makes your partisan team worse off,‘ Levitt said.
“That’s part of why Michiganders can feel really good about Prop 2,‘ he said. “Those who have most to gain “don’t hold the pen.‘
For instance, growing Democratic areas have been “packed‘ into already-Democratic leaning districts, minimizing their impact on neighboring districts.
A non-partisan commission, Levitt said, can draw boundaries that “are responsive to the communities but not engineered for partisan gain.‘
“Where Job 1 is not looking out for the incumbent. And that’s not what’s happened in Michigan in the past,‘ he said.
Michigan also lost a seat following the 2000 and 2010 Census counts and is expected to lose another after 2020.
In 2001 and in 2011, Republicans made sure the lost district was held by a Democrat and altered the boundaries so that they had a 9-5 advantage (which wasn’t erased until the so-called “blue wave‘ in November by Democrats evened the delegation to 7-7).
Southeast Michigan is home to seven districts and likely will lose one seat after 2020, Metzger predicted.
Since the two minority-majority districts, the 13th and 14th, are protected by the Voting Rights Act which prohibits the rewriting of boundaries that dilute the votes of racial groups, that puts the focus on the other five, four of which are represented by Democrats.
When it comes to Northern Michigan, Castle said he wouldn’t worry about the much change occurring in terms of the Republican party’s strength, but as expansion southward occurs it wouldn’t be surprising to see Democrats pick up a few new districts. He also doesn’t expect to see another “Blue Wave‘ in 2020 but that doesn’t mean Democrats won’t gain a few more seats both federally and in the state.