Democracy Deformed

How partisan redistricting distorts the will of voters

This essay first appeared in Dome Magazine.

By Rich Robinson

Let me pose a principle of democracy: Legislative representation should be in proportion to the vote. That is, the partisan makeup of a legislative body should reflect the partisan makeup of the vote in the election that selected the representatives.

Something like this: Your party's candidates get 90 percent of the vote, they should get 90 percent of the seats in the legislative body; 50 percent of the vote should get 50 percent of the seats, and so on.

Sound reasonable?

Oh, I know, our form of democracy is not proportional representation. And I'm sure someone is just dying to tell me that we're not a democracy, we're a representative republic.

Fine, but I'll bet most of our fellow citizens think that this is supposed to be some kind of democracy.

So, what do you think of my premise? Representation in a democracy should be a direct function of the vote.

I raise the question because that's not how things work in Michigan. As a population, we do not get the representation we vote for.

The most egregious recent deviation from an election reflecting the will of the voters was Michigan's 2012 congressional election. In that election, Republican votes yielded twice as much representation as Democratic votes. Twice!

Let me illustrate this with a little arithmetic that is well within the grasp of a thriving 5th grader. We can distill this unique twist on democracy to a single metric, which I like to refer to as Effective Vote.

Effective Vote is straight forward: You simply use the percentage of the legislative delegation won by a party as the numerator, and the percentage of the vote won by that party as the denominator. As an equation:

Effective Vote=%Representation / %Vote

If you buy the premise that legislative representation should be a direct function of the vote, an ideal democracy in a two-party state should show Effective Vote=1, for both parties. 90% of representatives / 90% of vote =1. 10% of representatives / 10% of vote=1.

I knew you'd get it.

So, let's plug the actual numbers from Michigan's 2012 congressional election into the equation. Republicans won nine of 14 congressional seats. That's 64.3% of the delegation. They won 45.6% of the vote. That's an Effective Vote of 1.41 (64.3% / 45.6%).

Democrats won five of 14 seats. That's 35.7% of the delegation. They won 50.7% of the vote. That's an Effective Vote of 0.70 (35.7% / 50.7%).

Republicans' Effective Vote was double Democrats' Effective vote: 1.41 to 0.70. That's what people mean when they talk about a partisan gerrymander.

There are mitigating circumstances. Democrats and Republicans are not homogeneously distributed. The Democrats loyal African American constituency is heavily concentrated in old industrial core cities. And I'm sure you've heard of "the Big Sort," where people choose to live among other people of similar political outlook.

But that doesn't explain what happened in our 2012 congressional elections. It was the first election following a redistricting that was controlled entirely by Republican actors. This was a technically effective exercise in partisan line drawing.

It is reminiscent of a quotation attributed to Joseph Stalin: "I consider it completely unimportant who will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this -- who will count the votes, and how."

The highly effective gerrymander was engineered by "packing" Democrats into a minimal number of districts. The narrowest winning margin for a Democrat (Sander Levin) was 28 percentage points. The other winning Democrats rode bigger landslides than that.

This is not to ascribe some unique partisan malfeasance to Republicans. I think it is safe to assume that Democrats would return the favor if they had the chance. It is nothing more than an example of an overtly partisan process harvesting its rewards.

So where does that leave democracy? At the mercy of whomever can best manipulate the rules of the grand game?

Many reformers I know believe the answer is to empower a nonpartisan commission to draw the lines of representative districts. I think that is a good idea, but it's not as simple as it sounds. Everybody comes from somewhere. How do you find the men and women of such integrity that they are truly willing to act disinterestedly and serve democracy, rather than ideology or party?

California's new redistricting commission comprised partisans and self-described nonpartisans. Thousands of Californians applied to serve on their redistricting commission. But criticism, including reporting by ProPublica, has rightly pointed out that there were flaws in the process that compromised the ideal of a hybrid between bipartisanship and nonpartisanship.

I think the most promising possibility is a distinguished academic panel. I think that is the best hope of finding individuals who value their intellectual integrity and reputation over partisan and ideological fealty. Imagine, for example, if the presidents of U-M, MSU and Wayne State each selected three outstanding members of their respective faculties - demographers, economists, political scientists - to draw lines that would fairly represent communities of economic and social interest, and the overall vote.

With personal and institutional reputations on the line, I don't think anyone would dare to go in the tank for party or ideology. Such a process wouldn't necessarily result in pure proportional representation, but it surely would do a better job of capturing the will of the voters than Michigan's 2012 congressional elections.

To give this discussion some context, you should know that Michigan's congressional redistricting was not the most severe distortion of a state's vote in 2012. The ratio of Republican Effective Vote to Democratic Effective Vote was 2.76 in Ohio, 2.68 in Pennsylvania and 2.34 in North Carolina.

Those cases represent some serious gerrymandering. If you believe that all ethics are relative, Michigan's ratio of 2.0 doesn't look too bad.

And, to cite an example where Democrats had complete control of a redistricting process, the ratio of Democratic Effective Vote to Republican Effective Vote in Illinois was 1.43.

This idea of trusting academics to execute fair redistricting isn't some easy path to equitable elections. Particularly those lacking formal education can easily be incited to distrust the highly educated. Serious alternatives should be considered. But the status quo is an insult to any serious notion of democracy.

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