That's right: The party that gets the fewest votes often wins the most seats.
It's a curiosity, but hardly a mystery: As in two dozen other states, the GOP's congressional advantage here can be traced to the 2011 reapportionment in which a state government dominated by Republicans reconfigured congressional boundaries to make most of the resulting districts a lock for their own parties' candidates.
In the three elections since, Republican have prevailed in nine of Michigan's 14 congressional districts, and they can reasonably anticipate similar successes for the rest of this decade. Indeed, their majority in Michigan's congressional delegation is likely only to increase, at least as long as they maintain control of the state government in Lansing.
If current demographic trends prevail — the likeliest scenario, barring an unprecedented deportation of the undocumented immigrants that have swollen the populations of many Southern and Western states — Michigan will lose another congressional seat in the re-sorting of 435 U.S. House seats that will take place after the 2020 census.
If Republicans control that reapportionment process, as they did in 2011, you can bet the district eliminated from Michigan's congressional map will be one of the five still held by Democrats, leaving Michigan's Republican congressional delegation undiminished.
If Democrats manage to wrest control of state government back from Republicans, on the the other hand (an almost impossible lift, given a legislative map that all but guarantees GOP control of the state Senate until at least 2022), they can be expected to make sure the congressional district eliminated is one currently held by Republicans.
Veteran Michigan Pollster Ed Sarpolus, whose Lansing-based Target-Insyght firm has spent decades crunching demographic data and political trends for members of both major parties, said he has a good idea how Republicans might redraw Michigan's political map after the next census.
In a reapportionment scheme he recently published "to get the discussion going," Sarpolus suggests that one of the simplest ways for Republicans to protect their congressional incumbents in the downsizing to come would be to divide the district currently represented by Rep. Sander Levin, an 18-term Democrat from Royal Oak, between those currently represented by Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester Hills, and Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield.
The resulting map would leave just four safe Democratic districts, with Democratic voter bases ranging from 59 percent (in Lawrence's expanded district) to 85 percent (in the Detroit district currently represented by Rep. John Conyers).
The nine reconfigured Republican districts would boast slightly diminished GOP majorities, as most Republican incumbents would be forced to absorb more reliably Democratic voters into their geographically expanded districts. (Sarpolus says he can't predict which Republican incumbent party leaders would stick with the largest number of Democratic voters, but it's likely many in the GOP establishment would make renegade Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Twp., who often diverges from the Republican House leadership, the fall guy.)
Sarpolus says his only assumption was that the GOP will endeavor to protect its congressional incumbents without violating legal guidelines that require districts to be self-contained and break as few other county municipal boundaries as possible. He's confident that any map drawn by Republicans would allow the GOP to dominate Michigan's delegation even when Democratic congressional candidates earn substantially more votes statewide.
That's what happened in 2012, when the Democratic candidates for Michigan's 14 congressional seats garnered nearly a quarter-million more votes than their Republican opponents but captured just five of those seats; and again in 2014, when a 55,000-vote advantage in the statewide congressional tally left Democrats in the same 9-5 minority.
It wasn't until last November that the popular vote for Michigan's Republican congressional candidates exceeded that of their Democratic rivals. But the GOP's lopsided majority in Michigan's congressional delegation remains disproportionate to its 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent margin of victory in 2016.
Discrepancies between the aggregate political preferences expressed by Michigan voters and the partisan complexion of Michigan's congressional delegation are neither unusual nor sinister on their face. Demographic distinctions between Democratic and Republican voters — the former tend to be younger, more racially and ethnically diverse, and more likely to cluster in cities and densely populated suburbs — historically have given the likely more diffuse GOP base disproportionate clout in legislative bodies.
Which is to say, even if Michigan's congressional and legislative boundaries were drawn by people indifferent to the consequences for candidates of either party, the reality that most Democratic voters reside in the state's southeast corner would limit their congressional candidates to a smaller number of seats than they would get if those seats were assigned in strict proportion to statewide vote totals.
But the Democrats' geographical disadvantage was dramatically magnified after the 2010 election cycle, when the Republican National Committee's focus on just 107 state legislative races in 16 states allowed the party to win control of the reapportionment process that took place the following year.
In Michigan, according to political journalist David Daley's impressively documented account of the GOP's redistricting offensive, an investment of just $1 million allowed the party to flip 20 seats in the state Legislature, giving Republicans the majority they needed to dominate the map-drawing process that define Michigan's current political boundaries.
The results were dramatic: In the 2012 election, the Democrats' 8-7 majority in Michigan's congressional delegation became a 9-5 minority — an advantage Republicans have sustained despite the fact that their congressional candidates frequently capture fewer than half of the state's popular votes.
The reconfiguration of political boundaries in other states (along lines similarly generous to Republican candidates) allowed the GOP to oust the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives the same year, crippling then-President Barack Obama's ambitious agenda for the final three-quarters of his eight-year tenure.
The legislative and congressional boundaries drawn after the 2010 census have imposed an effective ceiling on Democratic representation in many state legislatures and congressional delegations, even when Democratic turnout is robust. That explains why some of the Democratic Party's most powerful leaders (including Obama and his first attorney general, Eric Holder) have largely ignored the fledgling Trump administration's provocations to focus on what they see as a more consequential battle — the campaign to control the congressional and legislative redistricting process following the 2020 census.
But while some Democrats seek merely to emulate the tactics Republicans wielded so effectively in the 2010 election cycle and the 2011 reapportionment, other activists across the political spectrum want to insulate the redistricting process from partisans in both parties.
That's critically important, because the biggest drawback to partisan map-making isn't that it distorts the electoral process in favor of whichever party controls state government. The real problem is that parsing most Michigan voters to districts dominated by one party or the other tends to amplify the strength of extremists in both parties, while marginalizing centrists who seek to bridge the partisan divide.
This is why governors, U.S. senators and other officials selected in statewide elections tend to be more moderate than lawmakers from their own party. The former rarely win office unless they appeal to independent voters and moderates in the opposing party; the latter live and die by the whims of their parties' bases in uncompetitive districts.
Voters not Politicians, a nonpartisan ballot question committee, is drafting petition language for a 2018 referendum on its proposal to establish an independent Citizens' Redistricting Commission that would take over the responsibility for drawing Michigan's congressional and state legislative districts. An umbrella organization known as Count MI Vote has begun conducting town hall meetings across the state to build support for the anti-gerrymandering initiative.
But public ballot initiatives are expensive, and it remains to be seen who, if anyone, will be able to make the argument for nonpartisan redistricting as vigorously as both parties are likely to defend the hyper-partisan status quo.
What's certain is that the longer that status quo persists, the less Michigan's representation in Washington and Lansing will mirror the sentiments of its closely divided electorate.
You may contact Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press at [email protected]