Here’s a case in point: No sooner had our nation established principles such as “one person, one vote” and “majority rule with minority rights” there emerged a counterforce that continues today. It’s called gerrymandering, a practice both parties have engaged in — although right now, Republicans are way ahead of Democrats.
Here in Michigan, gerrymandering explains why Democrats received 240,000 more votes in the 2012 election for U.S. House seats, but sent only five representatives to Congress while the Republicans sent nine. It explains why, across the country, Democrats received 1.4 million more votes for the House of Representatives, yet Republicans have a majority of 33 seats.
Michigan’s story is repeated in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, and to a lesser extent in many other states.
The term "gerrymander" is a blend of two words: the name Gerry and salamander. In 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a redistricting bill that clearly distorted boundaries to get favorable election outcomes for his party. The shape of one district was so convoluted that it resembled a salamander, hence gerry-mander.
One look at Michigan’s 14th Congressional District (govtrack.us/overview) and you’ll see the salamander in our state. It starts around Auburn Hill, goes south and west to surround Farmington (but not include it), then it swings east to include Grosse Pointe, and finally south to almost River Rouge. It’s a contrived shape to say the least.
How does gerrymandering work? How does the minority beat the majority in an election? The strategy relies on the fact that, in an election, any margin of victory over one vote (theoretically speaking) “wastes” votes. Win by one vote or win by a million, the results are the same.
One trick is to figure out how to make the other party waste as many votes as possible by packing them into a few districts. Of course, you can’t make people move, but you can move district boundaries to include some neighborhoods and not others. With the opposition concentrated in a few districts, which they win with lopsided margins, all the remaining districts can be easily won by the minority party with fewer wasted votes.
So, it’s not surprising that the most lopsided victory in the 2012 Michigan House race went to a Democrat. When Gary Peters, D-Pontiac, won — running in that specially made 14th District previously mentioned — he received 270,000 votes; and the loser, John Hauler, a Republican, received 51,000 votes. So, in essence, 219,000 Democratic votes were “wasted” because they were unneeded to elect Rep. Peters.
The closest race occurred when Dan Benishek, R-Iron River, won with 167,000 votes; and his opponent, Gary McDowell (D), received 165,000 votes. Lucky for Benishek that some of Peter’s voters weren’t in his district.
With gerrymandering, the parties pick their electorate — not the other way around like most of us think.
There is a side effect, however. Once voters are rearranged by party, the district’s representative has a “safe seat.” Gone is the need to compromise and gone is the need to take a middle-of-the-road position because gone are the constituents who would encourage that behavior.
Making it worse, incumbents are now faced with challengers from their own party who promise to take more extreme, partisan-pleasing positions.
There are other solutions to redistricting other than using the legislature. California decided to reduce gerrymandering by forming the Citizens Redistricting Commission, made up of a fair mix of political views. This group, using public meetings and computer software, is tasked with drawing all state and federal district lines. To approve a new district map, a supermajority of each party on the committee is required, thus ensuring that each party feels the map is fair.
California is not the only state who is doing this. Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, New Jersey and Washington are also starting to use citizen commissions.
I can’t think of a more undemocratic practice that we tolerate so willingly. It subordinates and diminishes what’s good for the state and country to what’s good for a party.
Whether it’s legal or not is not the criteria here (after all, the same people who gerrymander also write the laws). We need a process in Michigan like the one used by citizen committees that delivers on our founding principle of proportional representation.
The problem is to get both parties to prioritize democracy above short-term party interests. You wouldn’t think that would be such a difficult choice for them to make, these men and women with flags in their lapels.
Richard Kamischke is our newest community columnist. You may have seen the Grand Haven Township man's many letters to the editor over the years.