California holds clues to how a redistricting commission could change Michigan

Bridge | October 19, 2018

A group is collecting signatures to let voters decide if redistricting decisions in Michigan should continue to be made by the party in charge of the Legislature, or should be turned over to an independent, bipartisan commission.

The group, Voters Not Politicians, points to an independent redistricting commission that determines political district boundaries in California. Arizona also has an independent redistricting commission. Several other states have redistricting commissions, but the members are appointed by political leaders.

What clues can Michigan voters glean from California’s experience taking redistricting away from politicians?

More competitive districts

In California, the number of competitive elections (closer than 5 percentage points) for the state’s legislature increased from two races in 2010, the last election before the commission redrew district boundaries, to four races. That’s still a small percentage of the 120 seats in the State Assembly and the Senate.

In the U.S., just 3.7 percent of House of Representatives races were decided by 5 percent or less in 2016; California had twice that rate of House races decided by 5 percent or less.

Michigan had no House of Representatives races decided by 5 percent or less in 2016 or even 10 percent. The closest Michigan House race was the 11th District in Metro Detroit, won by Republican David Trott by 12.7 percent. California had seven House races that were more competitive than Trott’s race.

Little change in Dem-GOP share of seats

The Michigan Republican party has labeled the Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative as a Democratic plot to gain seats in the state Legislature and Congress. But if Michigan has the same experience as California, Republicans have little to worry about.

In 2010, the last election before the Commission redrew lines, California Democrats earned 52 percent of the votes for State Assembly candidates and won 65 percent of Assembly seats. Two years later, after the lines were redrawn by the independent commission, Democrats earned 58 percent of votes, and 69 percent of seats, according to election results available from the California Secretary of State.

The political party that had the most to lose by giving up the power to draw district lines actually gained seats.

Vince Barabba, a member of the California Redistricting Commission and a former General Motors executive, said the results between 2010 and 2012 had more to do with changing demographics in California than the way the lines were drawn.

In fact, the commission in California never looked at party affiliation of residents when drawing its maps, Barabba said. Instead, the most important factor was keeping “communities of interest” together.

Bipartisan maps

California’s commission is not able to draw new district maps without approval from at least some members of each party’s representatives. If all the Republicans on the commission voted in a block against a map, the group would have to go back to the drawing board, Barabba said.

The proposed redistricting commission in Michigan would require at least two out of four Republicans and two out of four Democrats to vote in favor of new maps.

Increased public input

Barabba, a Republican member of California’s redistricting commission who helped conceive and create the OnStar in-vehicle communication system for General Motors and twice headed the U.S. Census Bureau, said one of the best features of independent commissions is public input into mapmaking. He said the California commission members held dozens of meetings across the state, getting input on how the public felt lines should be drawn. Those meetings were critical to gaining public support, and in growing consensus among commission members, Barabba said.

“It’s not just about data,” Barabba said. “It’s about people.”

View Original Publication: Bridge