91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

When it comes to representation in the Legislature and Congress, Michigan voters are still not equal

Jack Lessenberry


Tomorrow we will happily celebrate the Fourth of July, both because we see it as the anniversary of American Independence and maybe especially because this year it comes with a three-day weekend.

Actually, what we are commemorating is not really true independence; that came at the end of the Revolutionary War. What this day marks is the signing of the Declaration on Independence, the best-remembered line of which is, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Well, as you probably know, the men who wrote that document didn’t believe that as we do now. For one thing, they were all men. Women didn’t even get to vote for more than a hundred years.

Races other than whites weren’t equal, nor were the landless poor. But we like to think that isn’t the case anymore. After all, we have a black president, and may soon have a female one.

But when it comes to representation in the Legislature and Congress, Michigan voters are still not equal.

Legislative seats have to be roughly equal in terms of population. Congressional districts, exactly so. They redraw the boundaries every ten years. But politicians do the drawing, and last time, Republicans were in complete control of the process. That enabled them to give themselves total advantage.

That means that though more people cast votes for Democratic candidates, far more Republicans were elected. That doesn’t mean the Republicans who drew these lines were sinners and the Democrats saints.

The Dems probably would have done precisely the same if they could have. I am not concerned about them, but about democracy. Rich Robinson, head of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, just did a careful study.

He discovered that this gerrymandering meant that Republican votes were effectively worth twice that of Democrats.

Two years ago, less than 46% of Michigan voters voted Republican for Congress. But Republicans won almost two-thirds of the seats. Does that strike anyone as fair?

Last week, in an essay called “Democracy Deformed,” Robinson said, “Oh, I know our form of democracy is not proportional representation, but … representation in a democracy should be a direct function of the vote. That’s not how things work in Michigan.”

That’s not good for either party. There is at least one member of Congress who should no longer be there.

There are Democrats who aren’t doing the job who might well be defeated by Republicans if they were in districts where either party had a real chance. But they aren’t.

Some people would like to see a bipartisan committee in charge of redistricting. Robinson would prefer a panel of academic experts. I’d rather have nonpartisan demographers with computers.

But any of these would be preferable to the smelly partisan method we have now. There’s another section of the Declaration of Independence that doesn’t get quoted much.

It says that “when any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter and abolish it.” I think we need to get serious about altering this, before anyone gets it in their heads to abolish our dysfunctional democracy.

Happy Fourth of July!

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.