Professor explains redistricting process, details of proposal on November ballot

CADILLAC — Those heading to the polls this November have a lot to decide, not least of which the redistricting proposal that would fundamentally change the way districts are drawn in Michigan at the state and federal level.

The redistricting process — which is also referred to as apportionment — has been around since the birth of this nation but experts say technology has dramatically changed the way it is done.

David Jesuit, political science department chairman and professor at Central Michigan University, said since the time of the Founding Fathers, redistricting has been done by the state Legislature and governor's office.

This is how it works: Every 10 years, when the U.S. Census is conducted, congressional lines are redrawn to take into account population changes.

The process determines how many congressional districts are in each state, with each district containing the same number of people.

Whichever party that controls the Michigan House, Senate and governor's office is able to determine how the congressional lines are drawn.

From the beginning, Jesuit said the process has been political, as the party in control attempts to draw district lines that lead to the most possible votes.

Jesuit said they do this by analyzing areas to determine concentrations of Democrat and Republican voters.

By redrawing district lines based on where the most people of a certain political leaning reside, the party in power can maximize the number of seats they have for the next 10 years and minimize the number of the seats in the opposing party, Jesuit said.

Up until relatively recently, this process required quite a bit of work using old-fashioned maps and voting records from previous elections.

Nowadays, there are statistical computer programs that can do this work in a fraction of a time and in a much more detailed manner.

Jesuit said the programs can drill down to the level of individual precincts, which has led to some pretty bizarre-looking districts that in some cases split counties and townships based on political leanings.

"It's much more precise now," Jesuit said. "Technology is an important part of this story."

For instance, after the most recent redistricting that was completed in 2011, Osceola County was split between the state House of Representatives 102nd District and 97th District.

While population shifts could also have been responsible for this change in Osceola County, Jesuit said in the past, redistricting generally was done along county lines and it was much more rare to see splits.

With the advances in technology making the process much more exact, advocates of Proposal 2 say politicians are able to essentially choose their voters by "gerrymandering" their districts.

If passed, Proposal 2 would create a 13-member comprised of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents.

In the short term, Jesuit said the party in control in 2020 would stand to lose out on an opportunity to maximize the number of their seats if the proposal passes.

In the long term, Jesuit said the idea is to create districts that are more compact and contiguous.

Detractors of Proposal 2 point out several potential downsides to the change.

For one thing, the process would become much more expensive.

According to an analysis conducted by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, the state would appropriate up to $4.6 million to cover the cost of paying the apportionment committee members and fight legal challenges they say are bound to crop up.

During the 2011 redistricting process, only $878,000 was allocated for costs associated with creating new districts, according to the CRC, although this did not include the cost of defending legal challenges that have arisen as a result of the process.

Other criticisms of Proposal 2 are that voters will not get to decide who is on the committee or vote them off, as they will be appointed bureaucrats; and many people won't be eligible to be on the committee because of past political associations or close connections with people who have been involved in politics.

At the end of the day, some also question if the measure actually will result in less biased apportionment process.

A few states have implemented their own committees similar to the one being proposed in Michigan.

Eric Walcott, MSU Extension specialist in government and public policy programs, notes in his analysis of the proposal some of the difficulties and bitter political battles experienced by committees in California and Arizona.

"Neither of our major political parties has a stellar record of allowing political processes to play out without attempting to gain the upper hand, and it would not be realistic to expect differently if this proposed amendment passes," Walcott said. "If it is adopted, the process for drawing legislative districts in Michigan will change, but the political bickering over the redistricting process almost certainly will not."