"Gerrymandering" is the process of manipulating voting maps to favor one party over another. It's a practice that goes way back to 1812, when the Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, approved a set of district maps that clearly gave his party an unfair advantage. The local papers combined Gerry's surname with the salamander-like shape of the manipulated district, thus giving us the term "gerrymandering." But, are Michigan maps really a product of this unfair practice?
Why Do We Redraw the Maps Anyway?
The short answer: the Constitution.
The longer answer: Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution lays out how we must set up the U.S. House of Representatives. In order to ensure proper and proportional representation in the U.S. House, the Founding Fathers called for a count every 10 years. That count is known as the U.S. Census. It has taken place every 10 years since 1790, and the results are used to “reapportion” districts -- that is, to redraw the boundaries of voting districts -- so that each representative represents roughly the same number of people. The reapportionment, or redrawing, of districts levels the field so that every American has equal representation. A voter in rural Iowa has the same voice in Washington, D.C., as a voter in Manhattan.
This is necessary because of population shifts. People are born and people die. People move from one town, city or state to another. Redrawing voting maps every 10 years is supposed to rebalance the number of people among the voting districts. So, for example, if a state had two voting districts and the Census showed that, due to population shifts, District A now had 10,000 residents while District B had only 2,000 residents, reapportionment would require the state to redraw the districts so that they had 6,000 residents each. Then, each of those districts would elect its representative to the U.S. House of Representatives, and each of those representatives would represent 6,000 residents. Without reapportionment, one representative would represent 10,000 residents while the other would represent only 2,000 residents.
While the Census is done by the federal government, the Constitution leaves it up to the States to decide how to redraw their voting maps. In Michigan, the voting maps are drawn by the State Legislature. This power applies to U.S. House districts, as well as State House and State Senate districts. That means that whichever party controls the Legislature in the year after a Census count can manipulate the voting maps to give their party an edge in elections...for the next decade.
How Politicians in Michigan Draw the Voting Maps
Coming back to the earlier definition, the first part of gerrymandering is partisan intention. In Michigan, that partisanship part shows in the makeup of the Legislature when the current voting maps were drawn in 2011.
After the 2010 election, one party held a 63-47 seat majority in the Michigan House and a 26-12 majority in the Michigan Senate, as well as the governor’s office. Even with a huge majority, the party drawing the maps has to follow certain rules. For example, new maps have to break as few county and city lines as possible, and have to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. But within those rules, there’s a lot of room for the party in charge of the process to give itself an edge in future elections.
Both parties manipulate voting maps. It just depends on the state rules and who’s in charge in the year the maps are drawn.
How Voting Maps Help One Party Over Another
The other part of gerrymandering is the end result: giving one party an advantage over another. One party ran the entire state government when Michigan’s voting maps were redrawn in 2011. A number called the “efficiency gap” can measure the changes brought about by those new voting maps. Briefly, the efficiency gap measures the difference between the will of the people and the will of the politicians that drew the districts. Read more about the efficiency gap in our post How Does Gerrymandering Affect Competitiveness. So, what’s happened to Michigan’s efficiency gap since the new maps were drawn?
Compare the most recent elections for U.S. House, State House and State Senate with those same races before the 2011 changes to the voting maps:
U.S. House: In 2016, the gap was more than 15 percent, up from about 11 percent in 2010.
Michigan House: In 2016, the gap was about 10 percent, up from about 7 percent in 2010*.
Michigan Senate: In 2014, the gap was nearly 23 percent, up from about 14 percent in 2010.
These calculations were done by Voters Not Politicians. But don’t take our word for it. The respected non-partisan news site Bridge did its own analysis of Michigan’s efficiency gap, and reached the same conclusions.
What does this mean? It means that the party in power is winning up to 23 percent more seats than they should based on the number of total votes cast. It means that, if you don’t belong to the party in power, your vote likely doesn’t count on Election Day the way it should. It means the party that draws the voting maps is much more likely to draw the maps next time, further cementing their top spot. It means that politicians are choosing their voters, not the other way around.
Michigan’s Voting Maps Are Manipulated — and It Hurts Voters
Most voters like to think their vote matters on Election Day. Michigan’s manipulated voting maps make that more and more unlikely. The way voting maps are drawn in Michigan is partisan and not transparent. But voters can take back the power from politicians. Get involved. Get educated. Help us work to bring fair elections back to Michigan. Here’s how:
Save the Date // save the date and vote YES for an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission in the November 6 2018 election!
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 // we are recruiting volunteers to spread the word in 2018 to help us end gerrymandering in Michigan! 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.
* Note: In the 2010 Michigan House race, two candidates ran unopposed. To calculate an efficiency gap, an assumption has to be made about a vote tally for a generic opponent. The assumption has a minimal effect on the final results.