Date: Friday, February 11, 2011
Did your vote really count last election?

By Susan J. Demas, The Associated Press

your vote.jpgEvery couple Novembers, more than 1 million of us trot down to the polls and vote for our state representative. Every four years, we also punch the ballot for our state senator.
But for most of us, our votes essentially don't count. How can that be?

Well, this isn't some vast vote fraud conspiracy. It's because of something that's perfectly legal and takes place in much the same way in most states.

It's the redistricting process that occurs every 10 years after all of us fill out those census forms that come in the mail. Under law, lines for political districts for Congress and the state Legislature have to be redrawn, based on where people have moved.

In Michigan, if you've heard anything about redistricting, it's probably that we're dropping from 15 to 14 congressional seats because we've lost population. That's true.

What you haven't heard about is the fact that districts are drawn up in ways that don't really give hundreds of thousands of voters a choice each general election.

Only 22 of Michigan's 148 seats in the Legislature -- 15 percent -- have been truly competitive since the last redistricting in 2001. That's according to a new report by the Center for Michigan, which I co-authored.

These are numbers no expert or even steadfast partisans, like national GOP Committeeman Saul Anuzis nor Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer, have disputed.

In the House, only 16 of 110 districts are swing seats, in which they either regularly changed hands between the parties or averaged a 3-percent margin or less over the past decade. In the Senate, only six of 38 seats flipped in the past decade. Only two seats were consistently competitive.

Now stop and consider the fact that we've had three wave elections in a row -- the two big Democratic years in 2006 and 2008 and the huge Republican comeback in 2010.

On its face, it seems incredible that so few seats have changed hands. Michigan is, after all, a purple state -- one of a dozen that determines the fate of presidential elections. There are deep red pockets in Ottawa County, sure, and Detroit is the most Democratic big city in America.

However, we could have many more seats than just 22 in which it would be a real race between Democrats and Republicans -- if that's what politicians wanted.

But that's the big problem. Politicians in the Legislature are the ones who get to draw the lines. That means that Rep. X can carve out the a pretty sweet Senate district for himself by shifting a few townships here and there. And lawmakers can try to shore up as many safe seats for their own party -- where their candidate is almost guaranteed victory, no matter what happens.

“You have a situation where the Legislature is picking their own voters,” said Christina Kuo, Michigan executive director of the good government group, Common Cause.

And most decisions are made in the dead of night by party bosses, while voters don't even know how they've ended up in one district or another.

"It's hard to imagine something more sacrosanct that the right to vote," said Center for Michigan Executive Director John Bebow, who co-authored the study. "... (This report) calls into question how many of all those votes really matter."

I cover this stuff every day, and the numbers still shocked me. My votes are among those that really don't count, even though I don't live in a blood-red or deep-blue area. Thanks to the last redistricting, my state representative was always going to be a Democrat, as was my state senator. And my congressman was always going to be a Republican. 

Although this might seem like the ultimate game of inside baseball to most citizens, I bet it's pretty jarring for them, too.

Everyone wants a real choice when they go to the polls, after all.

In the House, the GOP held 43 seats over the past decade and the Democrats likewise controlled 42 seats. The dominant party averaged at least 55 percent of the vote. In the state Senate, the GOP held 17 seats while Dems dominated 11 seats.

For the growing number of us who are ticket-splitters, that's very bad news.

Now it's true that there are certain standards in place that are supposed to keep counties together as much as possible and districts compact -- i.e. none of those ridiculous "scorpion-like" boundaries, as Anuzis calls them. But Legislature, with the help of party leaders and teams of lawyers, are pretty crafty about drawing the districts they want.

Consider what happened when Republicans controlled the process in 2001.

From 2002 to 2010, the GOP won 47 percent of the total votes for House seats and the Democrats won 52 percent. Yet, Republicans held 51 percent of the House seats and Dems held 49 percent.

In the Senate, Republicans captured 49 percent of the votes during that time period and the Dems had 50 percent. Yet, the GOP held about 60 percent of Senate seats and the Dems held 40 percent.

Think the Democrats were any more high-minded when they controlled the process in the '70s and '80s? Think again.

Now some political insiders are offended at the idea that more competitive districts could be drawn.  
But if you can engineer districts to give one party or a certain politician an advantage, it stands to reason that you can draw seats that are competitive. It works both ways.

EPIC-MRA pollster Bernie Porn thinks it wouldn't be too hard to make 30 to 40 percent of legislative districts competitive -- without making districts look ridiculous.

It's true that there's not a great probability of this happening this year. After all, the GOP controls the crayon again and the smart political move is to grab every advantage you can.

So any real change is going to have to happen the next time around in 2020.

But politicians this year should have to answer to the voters about their plans. A Redistricting Collaborative, which includes the Center for Michigan and the Michigan Nonprofit Association, wants to see four public hearings on plans, with three outside the Lansing bubble. The new districts should be posted online 30 days before plans are adopted.

This is just common sense. Nobody wants deals on tax increases done in backrooms. That should go double when it comes to determining which voters have choices in elections.

Susan J. Demas is a political analyst for Michigan Information & Research Service. She can be reached at