11 oct 2018: about the gerrymandering referendum

November 6, in addition to all the pivotal elections of leaders in our nation, Michiganders will see three referenda on the ballot: 18-1 legalizing marijuana for recreational use; 18-2: requiring that congressional districts be drawn by independent commission rather than the party in power; and 18-3: relaxing voter registration and absentee ballot rules to make it easier for people to vote. For the next three weeks, we'll review those in this space, to help us think through what is at stake. You're welcome to submit your own thoughts, if you'd like. And find your ballot and read the full text here.

In 1812, Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed off on a bill that created a weirdly shaped congressional district, a district intended to change the party imbalance in his state's delegation. It worked, but he was widely ridiculed for the district's shape -- it looked like a salamander, said one leader. No, said another, a gerry-mander. 

Since then, the practice has grown more prevalent and more poisonous with each census, as the party in power seeks to solidify its hold on the US House of Representatives. (The number of House districts is always the same, 435, but divided among the states based on population, so it all gets reassessed after each 10-year census.) The party in power has the right to draw districts, and both parties have tried to do this to their own benefit, though the Republicans are more blatant and better at it. 

This has not been good for the US. With gerrymandering, plus the constitutional rule of two senators per state regardless of population, and then the electoral college, we have now realized a "minority majority," a Congress that does not reflect the general party alignment of the populace. 

In West Virginia, for example, a third of voters voted Democratic in the last election, but all the 3 Congressional seats are held by Republicans. In Kentucky, more than 1/3 voters are Dems, but 5 of 6 districts are GOP. North Carolina has 12 districts, only 3 of which are reliably Dem, and one of which looks like a river snaking through 4 other districts. Folks have said we are letting elected officials choose their voters, rather than have voters choose their elected officials. The result has been that the House of Representatives, designed to represent people more directly than the Senate, and elected anew every two years, has become entrenched, with a "incumbent success rate" in 2016 of 97 percent. This means a lot of people are left with no representation of their values or ideas in the halls of Congress, and newcomers are at a tremendous disadvantage in even gaining entry into political processes. (The math on how all senators or votes aren't equal is another mind-boggling reality, but we'll save that for another newsletter.) 

Maddeningly, for example, while districts in North Carolina were described recently by the Supreme Court of the US as targeting African Americans with "surgical precision," SCOTUS has consistently refused to make this better. So it is up to the states. Specifically, it is up to voters. 

This year, Michigan organizers have worked really hard to try to change this. This ballot proposal is probably not perfect, but it is really good. It would change the way voting districts are drawn, by taking away money and political power from the process. It would assign the task not to political parties, but to an independent commission, which would intentionally exclude elected officials, family members or lobbyists. It would comprise equal numbers of folks affiliated with the two major parties, but then more people who aren't part of either party. And it would be randomly selected, so, if you're registered to vote, you could be chosen! 

Getting it on the ballot wasn't easy. It took 400,000 signatures (Leslie collected about half of those, we think. -ed.), and then a lawsuit, backed principally by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, that went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. The Court decision wasn't unanimous, which means even the progress we make is fragile. And that the Chamber of Commerce is against it reminds us how much the moneyed people want to control the way we vote -- not by persuading us but by manipulating us. But we can't change any of the rest unless we can freely choose who represents us. 

I recommend we vote yes, and let's find our voices again. 

With you on the way,  - pastor deb