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Wednesday, June 15,2011

Pols protect themselves in redistricting

by Kyle Melinn

Inside some non-public office, somebody you don’t know is
plugged into a computer, mesmerized by some map-drawing program —
figuring out who our next state legislators are going to be.


At some point this month, their handiwork will see the
light of day ... that’s after they’ve been run up an internal flagpole.
Party leaders, legislators and some major stakeholders will all see the
next legislative and congressional maps first.


You and I may like the maps. We may not. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.


Redistricting is not an open process to the chagrin of public policy do-gooders and the political party not in power.


To the general public, the decennial
exercise of redrawing districts to match the U.S. Census is about as
sexy as George Washington’s powdered wig. To individual lawmakers, it’s
the Daytona 500 and the NBA playoffs wrapped into one.


Getting roped into the wrong district or being drawn into
the district of an incumbent colleague is a politician’s worst nightmare
come true.


So while map-drawing should be about keeping common areas
of interest together and breaking up as few political boundaries as
possible in the name of sensible representation for the people,
redistricting becomes about keeping incumbent officeholders happy first
and everything else second.


The Ingham County redistricting maps
released a couple weeks ago makes contorted ribbons out of the city of
Lansing and carves up a Holt/Delhi Township district into some strange
hieroglyphic. 


The redistricting committee gets a big pat on the back for
trimming the number of county commission seats from 16 to 14, but what
districts evaporated?


Those represented by Mark Grebner and Andy Schor, both of
whom are not running for re-election. The rest of the 14 incumbents?
They all have districts to run in.


Ingham County Republican Party Chairman Norm Shinkle said
he’s not happy with the map, but he likely isn’t taking the issue to
court. Unless the new district population numbers are completely out of
whack, the Court of Appeals won’t touch them, Shinkle said. 


Under the proposed map, the least populated district (No.
4) has 19,368 people and the highest-populated district (No. 13) has
20,854. It’s not a big enough difference to jump up and down about.


Maybe more important, all four Republican
members basically kept their districts. Instead of being in a 12-4
minority, this map improves the R’s lot, putting them in a 10-4
minority.


The same incumbent pacification is going on in every other
map the Lansing region cares about. A proposed congressional
redistricting map published in The Detroit News last week keeps U.S.
Rep. Tim Walberg in Eaton County but takes him out of Calhoun County,
creating a funky island in the new 7th District.


Why? Walberg is tired of getting hammered in the Battle
Creek area and doesn’t want to run again against Cereal City resident
Mark Schauer in 2012. No Calhoun County and the problem is solved.


Republicans concocted a meandering 9th Congressional
District in southeast Michigan with the sole intent of putting two
Democrats — Reps. Gary Peters and Sandy Levin — in the same district,
even though MIRS and Target Insyght have published maps that create more
compact districts that keep common communities together.


One of the more bizarre situations may be breaking down in
the state House districts, where the legislative Black Caucus is
preparing to pop maps that succeed in creating tailor-made districts for
all of their incumbents.


The U.S. Voters Rights Act requires that any redistricting
map attempt to maintain at least the same number of districts that
contain a majority of minority voters. If more can be created, that’s
even better.


But in keeping its incumbents happy, the Black Caucus drew
a map that doesn’t create as many "majority minority" districts as
possible. Maps drawn by Target Insyght’s Ed Sarpolus and commissioned by
MIRS actually create more.


That’s the problem with maps based on self-preservation as
opposed to keeping an eye on the interests of the state’s minority
population.  


When a state allows politicians to draw
their own maps, this is what inevitably happens —a self-serving exercise
where a party in power can protect their own at the expense of an
oblivious public. 


Four states — Arizona, Hawaii, Washington and New Jersey —
give independent commissions the job or drawing congressional lines,
and 12 states take state legislatures out of the job of redrawing their
own lines.


Until a similar step is taken in Michigan, every 10 years,
we’ll see that same predictable result. The party in power will draw
favorable lines for their friends. Whether it’s good for the public is
an afterthought.


(Kyle Melinn is the editor of the MIRS Newsletter. He can be reached at melinn@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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