Redistricting made national headlines this past June when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s independent redistricting commission — a bipartisan alternative to having the state legislature draw voting lines. In Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting, the Republican-led legislature claimed the commission was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the commission, meaning Arizona will continue its current redistricting practices.
Currently, 21 states have some form of nonpartisan or bipartisan commission, and 13 of those states use independent redistricting commissions exclusively. But for the rest of the country — including Michigan — the state legislature is in charge of redistricting. Unfortunately, this often leads to gerrymandering, where the political party in control redraws voting lines in its own favor.
The Arizona ruling inspired the latest Michigan’s Pulse quarterly poll, a collaboration between Michigan Radio and Public Sector Consultants (PSC) to better understand Michiganders’ opinions on policy issues. The surveys are conducted by Denno Research.
“Our polls with Michigan Radio are a chance to get in front of a current issue that’s been percolating,” said Craig Wiles, a senior consultant at PSC who specializes in polling and surveying. “We want to reveal the issue and get more people talking about it.”
The poll, which surveyed 600 likely Michigan
voters, showed that 63 percent of respondents favored having an independent commission redraw district lines. A majority (67.2 percent) of respondents say our state’s current process is “too political.”
Bright Ideas talked to PSC’s vice president Jeff Guilfoyle about the poll results and what might happen if Michigan were to have its own independent redistricting commission.
How did the U.S. Supreme Court decision about Arizona get people thinking about how lines are drawn in their own states? And how did that come out in this poll?
The recent Supreme Court case has renewed interest in the redistricting process. There was a big conversation about redistricting in Michigan in 2011, the last time Michigan redrew its legislative districts, but it has since quieted down.
The poll’s results weren’t too surprising. I think it illustrated that people aren’t familiar with how Michigan does its redistricting.
The questions in the poll are set up to take respondents down a redistricting rabbit hole, where they learn more about the process as they answer. Is there a reason for that strategy?
Pollsters can easily frame a question that gets an answer they want. If we want to know what people truly think, we have to be strategic and fair in our questioning. It would be easy to stop after the first question and say we’re done. When we explain to respondents more about how redistricting works, we get a more accurate voter representation.
Why were many respondents confused about redistricting?
Regardless of how thorough our explanations were, redistricting is still a complicated topic. The average voter doesn’t want to know all the details of how we redistrict the state. I do think the average voter wants to feel that the process is fair, however. The best way to do that is to educate the voters that an independent redistricting commission is a fairer way to draw the state’s legislative districts.
The benefit of an independent commission is that the districts will be divided more fairly. Are there any cons?
Not in my opinion. There are, however, some challenges to setting up an independent redistricting commission. If a commission has an even number of people, we could end up with a tie. If we have an odd number of people, we could end up with a majority from one party. But even with these challenges, the process would be much better than what we do now.
Michigan Republicans currently hold 27 of the 38 seats in the Senate. Could an independent redistricting commission even that out?
When there’s a fairly even statewide vote split between Democrats and Republicans, yet the Republicans end up with 27 of the 38 seats, the process feels rigged to some people. The thing we have to think about is that Democrats tend to live in more politically concentrated communities. Sometimes the Democratic seats in the Senate are won with 90 percent of the vote, while Republican seats win with 55 percent.
An independent commission could redraw the districts’ lines, but because of partisan concentration in some communities, you could still see an uneven split in representation, even if the overall statewide vote is close between the parties. However, when we see an uneven split in representation that favors the party that drew the districts, it certainly can feel like the process is unfair.
So voters will be less skeptical if the party in power isn’t in charge of drawing the districts?
Absolutely. Under the current process, we run the risk of making people feel disenfranchised, and I think that’s a big deal.
How does Michigan get an independent redistricting commission?
The only way to fix the redistricting process in Michigan is to put language in the Constitution. We cannot fix it statutorily because a new legislature could come in and write a law right on top of an existing redistricting statute. Adding language to the Constitution isn’t easy to do, but this is important, and we should do it.
In July, state representatives Jeremy Moss and Jon Hoadley introduced legislation to create a nonpartisan redistricting committee in Michigan. Do you think this legislation has a chance?
No. The current process is favorable to the party in control, and at the moment there is not a groundswell of support to change it, so it seems likely we will stay with the status quo.
What would the timeline to implement an independent commission look like?
The actual implementation is not that much work. We would need a constitutional amendment, and there are two ways to do it. One is by having two-thirds of the Legislature vote to place it on the ballot to be voted on by the people. The other way is to collect enough registered voters’ signatures to get it on the ballot.
This is one of those instances where it’s easier said than done, right?
Definitely easier said than done. There is a belief that the current process benefits legislative members, so of course they’re reluctant to change it. Collecting signatures, on the other hand, takes work and money. There needs to be a grassroots effort to have people volunteer to collect signatures or donate money to have paid signature collectors do it.
If an independent redistricting commission were to be placed on the ballot, do you think voters would be in favor of it?
Who wouldn’t vote yes on this?
Do you think an independent redistricting commission will eventually be created in Michigan?
I certainly hope it will. For representative democracy to work well, it is important for people to feel like their views are represented in their legislature. Anything that makes voters feel like part of the process is rigged undermines faith in the whole system.