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Making sense of redistricting

Michigan State Capitol
user cncphotos / flickr
Michigan State Capitol

The 2010 Census figures, released last month, announced that Michigan was the only state in the nation to lose population in the last decade. Now it is up to the states to redraw their congressional districts based on the findings of the Census.

Redistricting can play a big role in the political makeup of both state and federal representation. In Michigan, citizens are waiting to see how the Republican-dominated Legislature will handle the task of reshaping the state’s congressional districts.

The main objective of redistricting is to create congressional districts with roughly equal populations in each district, says John Chamberlin, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

“It takes account of the fact that people move around the state or people move out of the state. In 2010, if you looked at the populations in state House districts, for instance, there are disparities. So redistricting resets the clock back to roughly equal populations.”

Each state handles the task of redistricting differently. In Michigan, redistricting is treated as legislation, with the Legislature creating a bill for passage by the governor. Because the Republican Party controls the Michigan state Senate, House, and governorship, the task of redistricting will fall solely to the Republicans.

Due to the fact that Michigan lost population since the last redistricting took place, the state will lose one member in the U.S. House of Representatives. Through redistricting, the Michigan Legislature must determine where to combine districts in order to eliminate the district of one U.S. Representative, explains Chamberlin.

“What’s likely to happen is some Democrat will lose a seat in Congress. Last time around, the Republican Party managed to shift the districts from, I think, nine-seven Democratic to nine-six Republican. They are now nine-six Republican. My guess is that nine-five will be the goal for the Republican Party.”

As for the districts of Michigan Representatives in the state House and Senate, the Legislature will attempt to shape the districts in a way that benefits the Republicans, says Chamberlin.

“Within the State Legislature, where the Republicans have solid majorities, I think they’ll shore up weak spots, try to take on a few Democrats that they’d like to see get retired from the Legislature.”

While the 2010 Census figures were bad news for Michigan, they were particularly troubling for the City of Detroit, which lost roughly 250,000 residents from 2000 to 2010, according to the Census. The Census pegged Detroit’s population at 713,777, the lowest population recorded by the Census since the 1910 Census reported Detroit’s population to be 466,000. Detroit’s Mayor, Dave Bing, has said that he plans to challenge the figures released by the Census, in large part because of the state and federal funds the city stands to lose with such a diminished number of residents.

Though Mayor Bing hopes to prove that Detroit has at least 750,000 residents, Dr. Chamberlin isn’t too optimistic about his chances.

“I think Detroit may well ask for a recount. My guess is, in the long run, they’re not going to change those numbers. If they do, the redistricting process will have to take account of the new numbers sometime in the future, but they’ll certainly start with the numbers that were announced.”

With the population of Detroit dropping by a quarter of a million people in the past decade, the districts in the city must be redrawn. While redistricting often affects the political makeup of congressional districts, Chamberlin says there is strong precedence against manipulating the racial configuration of districts.

“Traditionally, there have been two African-American Representatives from Detroit. One of the things that the courts are quite serious about in oversight in redistricting is not eliminating African-American districts, Latino districts. The Voting Rights Act they take very seriously.”

Because the population in Detroit fell so drastically, the two districts in the city must be expanded into the suburbs in order to include the correct number of citizens. Whatever suburbs the Detroit districts expand into, Chamberlin says it’s likely those areas will have histories of strong Democratic support.

“There’s likely to continue to be two districts, centered in Detroit, that can elect African-Americans, and they will be packed with Democrats. One of the strategies, clearly if you’re going to have a Democrat get elected, they might as well get ninety percent of the vote because that gives you Republicans to spread around to other places.”

Although redistricting can be partisan, and confusing, and messy, it’s still an important part of the democratic process that maintains equality in representation. Residents should pay attention to redistricting if they want to understand how we end up with our elected officials, says Chamberlin, adding, “One would like a legislature to be reflective of the population.”

For an example of the possible implications of redistricting, Chamberlin says we need only look back to the redistricting that followed the 2000 Census.

“Michigan has traditionally been about as close to 50-50 in, say, the Presidential vote and state-wide votes, as any state in the country. After the 2001 redistricting, again at congressional and both state house levels, Democrats and Republicans got about 50 percent of the vote state-wide. Republicans got, I think, 60 percent of the congressional seats, 57 percent of the House seats, and 58 percent of the Senate seats. So, that redistricting effectively tilted the political playing field to advantage Republicans. And Democrats would do the same thing. So redistricting has the potential impact to sort of put a partisan tilt into politics for up to a decade.”

Eliot Johnson – Michigan Radio Newsroom

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