THOSE WHO believe — as we do — that partisan gerrymandering has become so extreme that it violates constitutional principles and threatens our democracy were disappointed when the Supreme Court dodged the issue last term. Its refusal in June, on technical grounds, to consider two egregious cases of partisan gerrymandering seemed to dash a good chance for reform. Lawmakers in statehouses who control the process, after all, have little incentive to fix a system they have rigged to benefit themselves.
So it is heartening — exhilarating, even — that citizens fed up with the toxic effects of gerrymandering have taken matters into their own hands. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that a record number of redistricting reform measures may be on ballots in states across the country this year. A particularly inspiring example is in Michigan, where a grass-roots movement of thousands of volunteers overcame great opposition to get a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. It would put an independent commission, not the legislature and governor, in charge of drawing the state’s congressional and legislative districts. Michigan’s state Supreme Court, in a 4-to-3 decision Tuesday, rejected a lawsuit brought by a business-backed group and supported by the state’s Republican attorney general that sought to keep the measure off the ballot.
The initiative is the work of a nonprofit group, Voters Not Politicians, born two years ago out of a Facebook posting from a 27-year-old with no experience in the political arena but a desire to do something positive after the 2016 election of Donald Trump. The group collected more than the required number of signatures without having to pay for them, which is something of a rarity in Michigan politics.
The amendment would create a 13-member redistricting commission that, starting in 2021, would consult with data analysts to draw compact, geographically contiguous districts not designed to favor any candidate or incumbent. The commission would hold regular public meetings, and its data would be made public.
The need for change can be seen in how Michigan’s current districts skew in favor of Republicans, the just-elected majority that created the map in 2011. Mr. Trump won Michigan by less than one-quarter of one percentage point, but the GOP maintained a nine-to-five advantage in Michigan’s congressional delegation and a 63-to-47 advantage in the state House. Republicans’ denial of political calculus is belied by emails, discovered in a separate lawsuit challenging the districts, in which GOP aides suggest ways to contain “Dem garbage” to four congressional districts and chortle over shaping one district to give “the finger” to a Democratic congressman.
Democrats engage in partisan gerrymandering, too, when they get the chance. It’s voters who get hurt; they are denied true representation, limited in a choice of candidates and confronted with government gridlock caused by political polarization. So Voters Not Politicians is right in saying, “It’s time we draw the line.” We hope their movement away from partisan gerrymandering — and similar efforts underway in other states — succeeds.