It seems like a simple contract: We elect men and women to represent us, and their votes reflect our concerns about issues that are important to us. They are responsive to our needs and the issues we value. But manipulated voting maps in Michigan and other states can make elected seats so “safe,” the voices of voters can get the silent treatment.
Elected leaders who are sure they will win re-election, regardless of what they do, can become less responsive to voter concerns, particularly concerns of voters in a district’s minority party. When elected leaders win by 10, 20, maybe even 30 percent, what incentive do they have to listen to dissenting views among their voters? None. This is a big concern and it happens on both sides of the aisle. Consider a few recent examples from Republicans and Democrats.
Rep. Dave Trott, who represents the 11th District in the U.S. Congress, held a town hall event on March 18th in Novi, his first in almost two years. He hadn’t held a constituent town hall since March 2016 and his constituents were demanding that he meet them face to face. He famously got a lot of criticism for flying to Mumbai during the February 2017 congressional recess, rather than hold an event to hear voters’ concerns.
Trott has said publicly that the protestors aren’t from his district and are being paid to protest. This doesn’t pass the smell test any more than the same accusations from Democrats against Tea Party protesters in 2009. Representatives need to acknowledge all of their voters — the voters who elected them, the voters who disagree with them and the people affected by the laws that they passed.
We’re not picking on Trott, though his example shows that a 12 percent margin in the most recent election can make you feel like you don’t have to hear from your own supporters or the thousands who may have supported your opponent. And he’s not alone. Michigan U.S. Reps. Mike Bishop, Bill Huizenga and Tim Walberg all dragged their feet in holding live constituent events this spring (before eventually following through).
We’re not picking on Republicans, either. Remember the Tea Party protests of the summer of 2010? There were plenty of examples of Democrats, many from safe congressional districts, dodging angry protesters wanting to voice heartfelt views about the passage of the Affordable Care Act and other issues. For example, Rep. Kratovil, a Maryland Democrat, told the New York Times in August of that year that protesters at a town hall were “a group of people who were there to disrupt, purely politically driven.” Sounds remarkably similar to GOP representatives in 2017, doesn’t it?
Both sides do it, when given a chance, because facing voters can be hard and partisan voting maps give representatives no incentive to hold town halls.
To be fair, not every representative in a safe district has neglected to regularly meet voters, even when those meetings turn uncomfortable. Rep. Justin Amash in the 3rd District (who won his district by 22 percent in 2016) has kept a busy schedule of town hall events, where voters have given him an earful. Listening is necessary for true representation. Yet representatives like Mr. Amash, who take the time to listen, seem to be the exception these days.
More often, safe districts give representatives too much confidence in re-election. That confidence reduces incentives for elected leaders to consider the views of all their voters. A fair voting map in Michigan, where lines aren’t drawn for either party’s best interest, would lead to more representative democracy where elected officials have more incentive to listen to their voters in the hope of getting re-elected in the future.
We don’t expect every voter’s opinion to influence policy. That’s unrealistic. But fairer voting maps can make elected leaders more responsive and help the voices of voters to, at least, be heard. Support us in our efforts to bring redistricting reform to Michigan. How?
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