Weekly Meeting- April 29: Michigan's New Citizen Redistricting Commission

Gerrymandering has been a fixture of the political landscape since at least 1812. In that year,  Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill redrawing Massachusetts state senate districts to the benefit of his Democratic-Republican Party. The Essex South district on Boston’s North Shore had emerged from the legislative process so distorted that it was said to  resemble the shape of the mythological beast known as a salamander. The Boston Gazette coined the word “Gerry-mander” to refer to it. Accompanying the newspaper’s indignant editorial about this drafting process was a political cartoon depicting a strange animal with claws, wings, and a dragon-like head superimposed on a map of the affected towns in Essex County. Public criticism nonetheless was ineffectual; the Federalist Party captured control of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the 1812 election, and turned Gerry out of office, but the redistricted state Senate remained solidly in Democratic-Republican hands. Gerry’s legislative colleagues knew their craft well.

The term “Gerry-mander” soon appeared widely in Federalist-leaning newspapers throughout Massachusetts, across New England, and then nationwide. Over time, its spelling collapsed into “gerrymander” and came to connote any manipulation of political maps for partisan gain. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that word had passed into accepted usage by the time it was published in a dictionary in 1848 and an encyclopedia in 1868. The emergent word is a portmanteau, i.e., a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two others; in this case, those words were Governor Gerry’s name, on the one hand, and “salamander.” It quickly took its place in the political as well as the linguistic lexicon. The phrase “to the victor belong the spoils” was coined in 1832 by Senator William Learned Marcy of New York as a short-hand reference to the aftermath of the election of Andrew Jackson as President of the United States. Strictly speaking, the phrase alludes to the winner of an election giving desirable jobs and government contracts or other largess to his political party’s supporters. Its penumbras quickly expanded to embrace the idea that the victorious politician could insulate himself or herself from serious electoral challenge as well. Politicians of all parties were quick to look on that idea as an emolument of office. It became baked into American political culture.

Gerrymandering primarily relies on two techniques: “cracking,” which dilutes the voting power of the opposing party’s supporters across many districts, and “packing,” which concentrates the opposing party’s voting power in one district to reduce their voting power in other districts. Modern data metrics enable legislators to craft district lines “with almost surgical precision,” North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. McCory, 831 F.2d 204, 214 (4th Cir. 2016), cert. den., 137 S.Ct. 1399 (2017) (challenged voter identification laws declared unconstitutional), to achieve either of those desired ends. That fact has led many states to strip their legislature of the power to reapportion congressional districts and/or state legislative districts. Typically, that power is vested instead in nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting commissions. In 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that this passes constitutional muster. Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, 135 S.Ct. 2652 (2015).

In November 2018, the voters of Michigan passed Proposal 2 overwhelmingly. That ballot initiative created an independent citizen commission to draw our congressional and legislative district maps in the future. It will consist of 13 registered voters randomly selected through an application process. Of the 13 commissioners, four were to be Democratic Party affiliated, four were to be Republican Party affiliated, and five are not to be affiliated with either major political party.

Proposal 2 received 61% of the statewide vote and carried 66 of our 84 counties. A subsequent challenge to its constitutionality was rejected by the United States District Court in Grand Rapids on November 25, 2019; Judge Janet Neff refused to prevent the Secretary of State from beginning to implement Proposal 2. Her decision was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit the next day. In the meantime, however, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has begun the process of selecting members for the new 13-member commission.

Proposal 2 was put forward by Voters Not Politicians. Jim Kozteva, a longtime member of our Club, is a trained volunteer for Voters Not Politicians. He will educate us about the process by which the commission will be formed and the timeline it will adhere to as it goes about the redistricting process.