League of Women Voters hosts gerrymandering forum

HOUGHTON – When Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry manipulated the boundaries of a state senatorial district after the 1810 census to benefit his political party, a Federalist paper said it resembled a salamander.

The portmanteau “gerrymander” has been used to describe the process ever since. But it was used before – even by Patrick Henry against James Madison – and it’s still in use today.

Martha Sloan, professor emeritus at Michigan Technological University, said in a Tuesday talk for the Copper Country League of Women Voters about gerrymandering at the Portage Lake District Library.

“For the most part, it’s politicians who choose the voter, and they usually choose them in such way to maximize the chances of being re-elected,” she said.

Under the Constitution, U.S. House seats are reapportioned every 10 years based on the latest census. Subsequent rulings and laws have determined the districts should be close to even in population and not deny minorities their role in the political process.

In Michigan, as in most states,the legislature draws up state and federal lines. The governor can veto those lines, while the state Supreme Court can review them.

But leaving the districts in the hands of legislators has led to outcomes that intentionally subvert the will of voters. A map drawn by California’s Democratic Legislature kept 60 percent the seats Democratic in 1980 after the two parties split the popular vote in half. After a Republican wave election in 2010, the GOP-majority Legislature’s boundaries turned a 51 percent-46 percent vote for the Democrats in U.S. Congressional races into a 9-to-5 Republican advantage. (The 2014 elections produced the same results, except this time with a proportionate Republican edge.)

Some other states leave the drawing of the lines to advisory commissions, although legislators still get the final say. Six Western states have independent commissions, which do not require legislative approval. Arizona’s recently survived a Supreme Court challenge from its state legislators, who claimed an independent commission robbed the legislature of its constitutional duty.

Changing Michigan’s law to allow for an independent commission could be done through a legislator-proposed amendment, which would be approved by the governor and then voted on by the public. It could also make it on the ballot if 400,000 signatures are collected.

The League of Women Voters’ stance calls for an independent commission and an open process providing “meaningful opportunities for public involvement.”