We all like to win. It’s a natural human instinct. But we also have a natural drive for fairness. Let’s talk about both.
But first, imagine a 100-yard dash between two runners. One runner works at the race track and has the power to set up the race. In order to get a leg up on their opponent, this runner adds 10 hurdles to their opponent’s lane and takes a jackhammer to the concrete while leaving their lane in perfect condition. Who do you think will win?
Elections in Michigan are pretty similar to this imaginary race. Politicians in Michigan have the power to manipulate voting maps to gear up for a 100-yard dash while leaving candidates from the opposing party at home on the couch with debilitating asthma.
How Competitive Are Michigan’s U.S. House Races?
Michigan’s voting population splits about evenly between the two major parties. Yet, it’s tough to tell by how voters are represented in Lansing or Washington, D.C. One party has a near super-majority in Michigan’s state house and holds a big majority in the Congressional delegation. That party, like our imaginary runner, has an unfair advantage and is much more likely to keep winning.
Michigan’s voting maps are drawn in unfair, non-competitive ways that harm voters. Consider some numbers from the Michigan Secretary of State comparing the 2010 election for the United States House of Representatives with the one in 2016, after new voting maps went into effect in 2011. It’s important to remember a lot goes into the winning margin in a congressional district. Voter turnout makes a difference. The charisma or perceived effectiveness of one candidate over her challenger factors in. Incumbency is usually an advantage. But, even considering those things, the difference between 2010 and 2016 is stark.
In 2010, only three U.S. Congressional races out of 15 were decided by a margin of less than 10 percent. Eight of those 15 districts saw winning margins above 25 percent, and two topped 50 percent.
Voting maps are redrawn every 10 years following the census. The maps drawn after the 2010 census made a lot of changes, because Michigan lost a seat in the U.S. House due to population loss. The Legislature in Lansing redrew the voting maps into 14 districts. In 2016, guess how many seats were decided by under 10 percent?
The 11th District served as a comparative nail-biter: In the tightest U.S. House race in Michigan in 2016, Republican David Trott won over Democrat Anil Kumar by 13 percent --- a comfortable margin by any standard but a skewed one created when district maps are drawn by politicians to further their own interests.
The new maps drawn in 2011 resulted in less competitive elections.
Why are those maps less competitive? When politicians are allowed to draw voting maps, they can spread the opposing party’s voters across multiple districts, thereby diluting their vote —- a process called “cracking.” Politicians in charge of drawing voting maps can also run up the numbers of the opposing party in one district, thus reducing that party’s numbers in other districts. This is called “packing.”
Mind the (Efficiency) Gap
There’s a complex formula that gets at this idea, and the resulting number is called the “efficiency gap.” Basically, the number of votes wasted by each party are tallied, and the net number of wasted votes divided by the total number of votes cast gives us a percentage —- the efficiency gap. A vote is considered “wasted” if it’s cast for a candidate that loses, or if it’s cast for a winning candidate in excess of what’s needed to win. The gap favors one party or another, and it represents the percentage of seats a party wins over what would be expected if both parties wasted the same number of votes.
Think of it as the competitive edge one party has over another. Returning to our original analogy, the efficiency gap is the runner’s pristine lane compared to their opponent’s hurdles and potholes. The bigger the gap, the more likely that runner (and his entire team) will win the race.
In Michigan in 2010, the efficiency gap for the U.S. House overall was about 11 percent. In 2016, the efficiency gap climbed to more than 15 percent. In other words, elections and votes became less efficient. By population, both major parties receive about equal votes in Michigan. But one party won 15 percent more seats — nine seats out of 14, when by population you’d expect them to win seven. That’s the efficiency gap at work.
Bridging the Efficiency Gap
Michigan isn’t alone in this. Many other states have large, unfair advantages drawn in their voting maps for one party or another. Many other states, like Michigan, allow politicians to draw voting maps —- effectively letting politicians choose their voters, not the other way around. This happens for U.S. House districts, as well as for state House and Senate voting maps.
In November 2016, the federal District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin struck down voting maps in that state for just this reason. In making their case, plaintiffs argued that an efficiency gap greater than 7 percent should be considered unconstitutional. While the court didn’t decide a specific number, the case there involved state Legislative districts where the gap was 13 percent —- less than the 15 percent Michigan currently has for U.S. House districts.
It matters. Built-in advantages in voting maps, like those here in Michigan and those struck down in Wisconsin, can guarantee re-election even for the worst behaving, most extreme politicians. In other words, “safe” districts destroy the incentive for politicians of both parties to listen to all the voices in their district —- not just those they agree with.
That’s a lot of bad news. The good news is that voters can bridge the gap. They can get involved through Voters Not Politicians (VNP), educate themselves, and help us work toward fair elections in Michigan. Here’s how:
Sign the petition // Voters Not Politicians is in the process of collecting 315,654 valid signatures to get our policy on the November 2018 ballot. Click here to find an upcoming opportunity to sign the petition!
Donate // the politicians and special interests who benefit from the current system will spend millions defending and protecting their unfair advantage. We have to fight back, and that will include advertising and putting together hundreds of local events across Michigan to educate voters on their rights. Donate to Voters Not Politicians here.
Volunteer // help us spread the word and gather petition signatures! We are recruiting a field team of petition circulators that will help us spread the word and collect signatures this summer. If you are interested in being a part of this vital part of the process, please click here.
Stay educated // learn more about gerrymandering and how you can defeat it! Stay up to date on campaign updates and news by signing up for our newsletter here.