Gerrymandering gone: Grassroots committee holds first public forum

Voters not Politicians Ballot Committee Representative Walter Sorg (top right) presents information during a forum at Peter White Public Library in Marquette on Saturday. The event is the first of about 20 forums where the committee will seek input from Michigan residents in order to change the way voter districts are drawn in the state. (Journal Photo by Lisa Bowers)

MARQUETTE — Almost 100 Upper Peninsula residents gathered at Peter White Public Library in Marquette for the first official forum held by the grassroots group Voters Not Politicians Ballot Committee on Saturday.

The VNPBC is using the forums to solicit input on a ballot initiative to take politicians out of election redistricting and end the practice of gerrymandering — which is the process of manipulating political district boundaries to benefit a particular political party.

The group is seeking to amend the Michigan Constitution in 2018 to create an independent Citizens’ Redistricting Commission, which would be responsible for drawing Michigan’s congressional and state legislative districts.

VNPBC representative Walter Sorg said under the current redistricting system, the political party in power in the state Legislature draws the lines each decade after every census.

“Basically the politicians are choosing their voters instead of voters choosing their politicians,” Sorg said. “The power to make the maps really determines who controls the Legislature and who controls the congressional delegation, and it’s being manipulated state by state by political parties, basically to maintain their own power, but it is hurting democracy as a result.”

Sorg said the committee needs funding and 3,500 volunteers for a petition drive to start in May.

The drive will have to follow strict rules with the Michigan Board of Canvassers, he said.

“We have 180 days to gather 315,654 valid signatures, not that anyone is counting,” Sorg said. “Which means we have to get 400,000 to 500,000 valid signatures, and they have to be properly screened. It’s an enormous undertaking.”

Sorg said the proposed solution is a citizens commission, chosen in similar manner to a trial jury, that is free of the political insiders.

“So it’s regular folks like you and me deciding how these maps are drawn … working in the interest of the voters instead of the political leaders that have a vested interest in how it works out,” Sorg said.

Michigan is unique, he said, because in most states you register to vote by party.

“You don’t do that in Michigan, so that complicates the process of coming up with a commission that’s really balanced and fair with all points of view, and that is one of the issues we really need to discuss,” Sorg said.

Under Voters Not Politicians’ proposal, Citizens’ Redistricting Commission would be nonpartisan, meaning current and former politicians, lobbyists, political consultants, major campaign donors and other political insiders would be ineligible to serve.

When gerrymandering first started in the early 19th century, Sorg said, the practice was an art relying on people to make decisions on how to configure district maps.

“It has gotten a lot worse in the last couple of decades because of computers, data mining, and things like that. It’s much more precise than it used to be,” Sorg said. “They can — by census — track how they want to divide up the state for the biggest advantage to their party.”

Dr. Davia Downey, assistant professor in the School of Public, Nonprofit and Health Administration at Grand Valley State University, said 91 out of 110 races were decided by margins of 10 percent or larger in the 2016 election for the Michigan House of Representatives.

“In Michigan’s 16 races for Congress, the winning candidates won by a margin of at least 13.7 percent; 12 out of the 16 races were decided by more than 15 percent. Politicians, not voters, are deciding who wins.”

Dr. John Hanieski, an independent economics consultant and former chairman of the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, said the current system has produced congressional and legislative districts that are deliberately distorted to protect incumbents and the ruling political party.

“Michigan historically has been a middle-of-the-road state, with the two major parties generally receiving virtually the same number of votes for the Legislature and Congress,” Hanieski said. “The Legislature and Congressional delegations should reflect that fact.”

Hanieski said the difference between the two major parties’ state House vote in 2016 was just less than 1 percent — 3,000 votes.

“But the maps drawn by the politicians and their consultants in secret meetings gave one party a 63 to 47 advantage in the House. Every other election in Michigan in this century has been similarly distorted by the mapmakers,” Hanieski said.

Ending the practice of gerrymandering is not a new idea, Sorg said. Several states have adopted legislation that puts redistricting in the hands of the voters.

“California has an excellent plan, Arizona and a few others,” Sorg said.

The committee will gather information centered around what works best in other states in order to incorporate them into a Michigan plan, Sorg said, in addition to gathering the views of the people in Michigan.

Sorg said people can get more information on the movement at the group’s website –www.votersnotpoliticians.com — or follow the group at the Voters Not Politicians Facebook page.

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.