Good Government

Gerrymandering – the Michigan 11th Congressional District

Michigan Congressional District 11 Elections (Kerry Bentivolio vs. David Curson / Dr. Syed Taj)
In these races, Bentivolio is a Republican and self-proclaimed Tea Party member. Curson is a Democrat and UAW local officer. Taj is a Democrat and local council member (and physician). Only Taj has run for elected office before.
There were two races: one (Bentivolio vs Curson) using the 2010 district boundaries to fill a lame-duck seat (Nov 6-Dec 31, 2012), and one (Bentivolio vs Taj) using the 2012 district boundaries to fill the 2013-2014 term. They are both designated MI-11th Congressional District. In both 2010 and 2012, the district reaches into 2 counties (Wayne and Oakland), so vote counts are separable by county.
This offers a unique look at the specific impact of redistricting — and gerrymandering — in Michigan. The incumbent is a Republican (Thaddeus McCotter) who resigned his office in July 2012.
A look at the Wayne County and Oakland County voting reveals that the Democratic candidate (Curson or Taj) did well in Wayne County, but was shellacked in Oakland County — particularly in the far west and northwest precincts. See the Oakland County results and click on the “Precinct Map” to see vote distribution by geography/precinct.
Democrat Curson won Wayne County by enough to overcome the loss in Oakland County.
Democrat Taj lost by 500 votes in Wayne County but lost by 22,000 in Oakland County.
One hypothesis (without evidence at this point) is that the foreign-sounding name “Dr. Syed Taj” was a factor in voting. However, the offset here is that the same foreign-sounding name won the Democratic primary over a very non-foreign-sounding name (“William Roberts”).
Much more likely is that the redistricting was made to shape the district as “safe Republican” for McCotter, and that carried over for any Republican. However, Bentivolio’s 9-point victory margin (51%-44%) was much closer than McCotter’s last victory margin of 20 points (59%-39%). So, although the district was “more Republican” in 2012 than in 2010, the challenge was much closer — a reflection of the Democrats characterization of the Republican candidate as “extreme”, “loony” and “weird”. This also brought national attention to the race, beyond the oddity of a resigned Congressman.
In Wayne County, there were 220,000 votes cast in the Curson/Bentivolio race, but only 130,000 votes cast in the Taj/Bentivolio race, reflecting the effect of redistricting. Likewise, in Oakland County, there were 105,000 votes case in the Curson/Bentivolio race, but 225,000 votes cast in the Taj/Bentivolio race. [I don’t have numbers on the total registered voters by old/new district.]
The 2010 vs 2012 vote totals by county (reflecting the redistricting effect):

2010 District boundaries:
Wayne:   Bentivolio:  92,500   Curson: 118,800
Oakland: Bentivolio:  59,200   Curson:  40,400
2012 District boundaries:
Wayne:   Bentivolio:  64,000   Taj:     63,500
Oakland: Bentivolio: 117,700   Taj:     93,300

Notice the reversal of the Wayne/Oakland vote counts: in 2010, it is 2:1 favoring Wayne County; in 2012, it is 2:1 favoring Oakland.
There is a political lesson to be taken from these results. All parties should be targeting the next redistricting period, which will be in 2021, following the 2020 census. This means that each election between today and 2020 should be targeted to increase the party’s likelihood of holding a controlling position in 2021. In most cases, this is the state legislature, either directly (by a legislative commission) or indirectly (by appointees to a “nonpartisan/bipartisan commission” or to the judiciary). There will be at least four elections between now and then. Each election should be aimed to gain (or expand) a majority in the legislature by 2021.
What part of this is Good Government? Little or none. This is really about stacking the deck, gaming the system, rigging the outcome. While we might object, and object loudly, it is the way the game is played. And if you don’t stack the deck, the other guys will — and your objections will not improve anything.
Post-script: In 2011, Michigan’s Oakland County had a bipartisan redistricting commission that was a majority Democratic. After losing challenges in court to overturn the commission’s plans, the Republican legislature passed a special, retroactive law redefining the county’s redistricting rules — the result was that the county redistricting commission was dissolved and the process was given over to a Republican majority on the county board.

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