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Petition drive tries to return Michigan to a true, representative democracy

Michigan's current congressional districts.
Department of the Interior
Michigan's current congressional districts.

The founders of our system attempted to give this country, and later this state, something called representative democracy.

That’s supposed to mean electing people we trust to represent our best interests to make laws for the state and nation. That generally worked pretty well. Not that it was perfect, and for a long time some of us were shut out of participating. But eventually that got fixed.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

Unfortunately, in recent years, the system has become badly broken. Term limits have been a disaster. But what may be even worse is the rise of extreme gerrymandering. That means, jiggering the district lines in such a way as to give one party complete dominance.

That’s what’s happened in this state. Though Michigan usually votes Democratic in national elections, Republicans have been in control of most or all branches of state government the last several times new lines have been drawn.

Rather than keep communities together, they’ve drawn the lines to give themselves maximum partisan advantage. As a result, we have elections in which Democrats win a majority of the statewide vote for legislature or Congress, but end up with only a minority of the seats.

Worse, most districts are drawn in a way to make them completely uncompetitive in a general election, no matter what. That’s why Brian Banks, a known criminal, could be elected despite a long string of felonies.

Community interests are also ignored.

... most districts are drawn in a way to make them completely uncompetitive in a general election, no matter what.

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, which rightly were in the same congressional district for decades, are no longer. Rural Oakland County voters are combined with the Grosse Pointes and some of the roughest and poorest inner-city neighborhoods.

Requiring a fair way to draw district lines is essential if we are ever to make democracy work again.

Members of a non-partisan, non-profit group called Voters Not Politicians has been working for months to find out what voters want, and how to draw up a state constitutional amendment to give it to them. They’ve come up with a workable plan for a fair and bipartisan commission that would draw the boundaries.

Finally, they submitted petition language to the Board of State Canvassers on June 28, so they could start collecting the more than 315,000 signatures they’d need to get it on next year’s ballot.

But the board still hasn’t acted.

And Voters Not Politicians is complaining they are losing valuable time. I wasn’t surprised at the delay when I heard that the petition they submitted was eight pages long, in tiny type.

But Walt Sorg, one of their guiding spirits, explained. “The document is really long because (under state law) we are required to include all current language that is either repealed or abrogated by our amendment.”

Sorg, a longtime, experienced Lansing hand who has worked in all three branches of state government did say that if it gets on the ballot, voters will fortunately see only a one hundred word summary. It makes sense to make sure the language is right; Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley had to throw out a bunch of signatures after his petition drive went off half-cocked.

But I am hoping that Voters Not Politicians can get their amendment before the people as soon as possible. The future of both representative, and responsible, government may be at stake.

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

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