But don't blame voter fraud, Russian hackers, or Deep State saboteurs. The culprit is partisan gerrymandering, a practice that is neither new nor unlawful, although advances in computer software have made it more sophisticated than ever before.
Across America, political boundaries have been configured to give one party an edge in the contest for partisan control of the state Legislatures and congressional delegation.
In Michigan and two dozen other states where Republicans controlled the redistricting process after the last census in 2010, political boundaries have been drawn to give GOP candidates an advantage in most legislative and congressional contests. In the minority of states where Democrats controlled the process, their candidates enjoy a similar advantage.
Even when Republicans and Democrats are forced to share authority over the redistricting process — as in a decennial census year when the two houses of the state Legislature are controlled by opposing parties — mapmakers typically conspire to configure district lines that insulate incumbents in both parties from electoral competition.
No less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged the pervasiveness of partisan gerrymandering and warned that it is "incompatible with democratic principles."
And when the current Supreme Court term began last October, it appeared that after decades of hand-wringing, justices were finally ready to do something about it
A judicial anti-climax
But this week the high court dashed voters' hopes that justices would take prompt action to make upcoming elections more fair.
Ruling unanimously in a pair of cases many experts had forecast would recast the nation's political map, the high court once again dodged the thorny problem of deciding when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far.
By sending plaintiffs who contested the constitutionality of political maps in Wisconsin and Maryland back to Square One, justices all but guaranteed that a pending lawsuit in which the League of Women Voters is challenging Michigan's political boundaries won't be resolved before the 2020 elections.
The upshot is that Democratic and independent voters may be stuck for two more election cycles with a political map that mutes their voices while amplifying those of GOP voters, allowing Republican candidates to maintain control of the state's Legislature and congressional delegation even when a majority of voters cast their ballots for Democratic candidates.
A remedy at the ballot box?
But last Wednesday, just two days after Supreme Court justices ducked the election-fixing issue in the Wisconsin and Maryland cases, the Michigan Board of Canvassers agreed to place an anti-gerrymandering measure on the state's November election ballot.
A constitutional amendment proposed by a grass-roots group called Voters Not Politicians (VNP) would dramatically overhaul the way Michigan configures its legislative and congressional districts after the next census in 2020, when all 50 states will adjust their boundaries to reflect fluctuations in population.
(The number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives is fixed at 435, so if Michigan's population continues to stagnate, one or more of its 14 seats in the House could be a state whose population is increasing faster than ours.)
Under the state constitution adopted in 1963, the Michigan Legislature is responsible for reconfiguring the state's political map after each census, although their work product is subject to gubernatorial veto and judicial review by the state Supreme Court. Even when neither party controls all three branches of government, the current procedure gives political party leaders a hammerlock on the redistricting process.
But if the amendment proposed by VNP is adopted by voters, Michigan's next political map would be drawn by a citizens commission composed of four Democrats, four Republicans, and five voters unaffiliated with either major party. Commission members would still be permitted to study historical voting patterns, but they would be prohibited from exploiting that data to give one party or candidate an electoral advantage.
Opponents of gerrymandering haven't given up their fight for a judicial declaration that Michigan's current political map violates the constitution by diluting Democratic votes and distributing Republican voters to maximize the number of districts in which the GOP maintains an electoral majority.
In a concurrence to the Supreme Court's unanimous decision to remand the Wisconsin and Maryland gerrymandering cases for further fact-finding at the trial court level, Justice Elena Kagan and three other justices provided a step-by-step guide for plaintiffs in future gerrymandering cases.
Mark Brewer, who represents the League of Women Voters in its lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Michigan's political map, says his clients are prepared to clear the hurdles Kagan and her colleagues have established. And although justices have yet to indicate how they will determine when partisan gerrymandering has illegally distorted a state's election results, an exhaustive study scheduled for publication this week by Michigan's non-partisan Citizens Research Council suggests the state's current political map is doomed to fail any fairness test the Supreme Court decides to adopt.
A volunteer juggernaut
The bipartisan Board of Canvassers's decision to certify the anti-gerrymandering amendment for the November ballot is a major victory for VNP, which collected the 315,000 signatures required to advance its petition (and about 80,000 more) with a volunteer army whose zeal startled professional pols in both parties.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which is the state Republican Party's most reliable donor and enjoys corresponding clout in the GOP-controlled state government, has mounted a spirited legal challenge to VNP's initiative, alleging in a lawsuit that its detailed provisions amount to the sort of constitutional overhaul only a formally elected constitutional commission is authorized to undertake.
That argument fell flat with the Michigan Court of Appeals, which ruled, in a detailed decision rendered by a unanimous panel, that VNP had met all the legal requirements for putting its proposal before voters. Even then, the two Republicans on the four-member Board of Canvassers continued to slow-walk the proposed amendment — until last week, when the Michigan Supreme Court refused to stay the Court of Appeals' order that canvassers certify the VNP petition.
Initial polling suggests that a majority of voters support for VNP's anti-gerrymandering initiative, but the proposal still faces some legal hurdles.
Opponents led by former Michigan Chamber uber-lobbyist Bob LaBrant have appealed the Court of Appeals pro-VNP ruling to the state Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on the merits. Five of the seven justices are Republicans who've benefited from the Michigan Chamber's financial support, and two of the five, Kurtis Wilder and Elizabeth Clement, are up for election this November.
The state Supreme Court's refusal to stay the Court of Appeals' ruling in favor of VNP's petition suggests that Republican justices are unlikely to overturn it. They, too, must recognize the peril of intervening to derail an electoral showdown on gerrymandering that is already long overdue.
Brian Dickerson is the editor of the Detroit Free Press' editorial page. Contact him at [email protected]