WSW: Do Legislative Boundaries Skew Democracy?

Jul 9, 2014

Credit iStock/Svetlana Larina

Michigan Campaign Finance Network Executive Director Rich Robinson says Michigan's system of drawing legislative boundaries doesn't serve voters. 

Robinson wrote about redistricting in a column for the online news service Dome Magazine, and said allowing lawmakers to draw the lines serves whatever political party has control of state government at the time. He told WMUK's Gordon Evans that the new maps drawn after the 2010 census pack as many Democrats as possible into the smallest number of Congressional districts.

Robinson says that's why Republicans represent nine of Michigan's 14 Congressional districts despite Democrats winning a majority of all the votes for Congress statewide. Robinson says the situation is not unique to Michigan or the Republican party. He says Democrats in Illinois also enjoy a partisan advantage in their redistricting process.

Asked about requirements in federal law and the state Constitution that lawmakers must follow. Robinson says an examination of Congressional districts shows some very precisely drawn boundaries to protect partisan advantage. He says while lawmakers are supposed to break as few local government boundaries as possible, they have found creative ways to tilt the system in their favor. 

"There's no ideal way to do this."

Other states have tried to implement an independent redistricting process. Robinson concedes that California's system has had some problems with an independent commission that includes representation of the political parties and independents. He says "There's no ideal way to do this." Robinson says he would like experts in economics, sociology and political science to consider different common interests among populations. 

Robinson says for instance Kalamazoo and Battle Creek are not in the same district, despite sharing many economic interests. He says there are many ways of grouping people that make sense, protect voting rights and don't give one side or the another a partisan advantage. 

In the web version of the interview, Robinson also said that the redistricting process is part of the effort to get a political advantage. He says money spent on campaigns is also part of the equation.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network recently analyzed the money spent on this year's statewide races in Michigan for Governor and U.S. Senate. Robinson says independent national groups are spending more on ads than the campaign committees for the candidates. He says much of that is "dark money" because the donors to the groups are not known. But Robinson says it's not equal. He says most of the donors for the groups running ads on behalf of Senate candidate Gary Peters are known. But the groups attacking him shield the identity of the people giving money. 

Robinson says the influx of money from outside groups is a direct result of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. But he says that Congress and the state Legislature could enact legislation that would require greater disclosure of people donating money.