Drawing lines: Redistricting competition involves citizens in the process

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Are you smarter than a politician?

If so, you might want to sign up for a new contest challenging Michigan residents to redraw district lines.

The "Michigan Citizens' Redistricting Competition" gives citizens a voice in the 2011 redistricting process, said Jocelyn Benson, founder of the Michigan Center for Election Law, which is sponsoring the competition.

"It's a non-partisan effort to involve citizens in the redistricting process by giving them the tools and software and data and information they need to draw their own district maps," said Benson, who spoke to students Wednesday at Wayne State University Law School, where she is an associate professor.

The Michigan legislature redraws district lines for U.S. Congress and the state legislature at least every 10 years, Benson said. Data from the new census will be used to draw new lines by Nov. 11.

Benson spoke of the need for a new independent redistricting commission in Michigan similar to California's. Such a change would require a constitutional amendment here because under the Michigan constitution, the legislature draws the district lines.

She said citizens are surprised to learn how much discretion the politicians drawing the lines have when creating new maps, and how few rules exist that determine where the district lines can be drawn.

The main problem with the current redistricting process now, she said, is that it lets politicians choose which voters will be in their districts.

Benson is convinced that the state needs to make several reforms to the election process.

"But nothing will truly change the process in a meaningful way until we remove the decision-makers for redistricting from the legislature and put it in the hands of the citizens through an independent redistricting commission," she said. "That's the only thing that can really ensure that we have, as much as its possible, a fair and independent redistricting process."

About a dozen states have an independent redistricting commission or something like it, she said.

By entering the Michigan Redistricting Competition, Michigan residents can design their own redistricting maps for Congressional or Michigan legislative districts. The maps that best meet the criteria will be submitted to the Michigan legislature for consideration.

Benson heard about a similar competition in Ohio and while running for Secretary of State last year, promised to bring such a contest to Michigan.

Though she lost the election, she's sponsoring it through her non-profit group.

Benson hopes the competition will empower more citizens to play a role in the election process.

"And through the winning maps, we hope to demonstrate that citizens can sometimes, through an open, transparent and inclusive redistricting process, produce better district maps than the current process does," she said.

After the talk, third year law student Nate Fink said the competition is a unique way for people to get involved in a political process.

"Despite the fact that Professor Benson obviously has a partisan affiliation -- given that she ran for Secretary of State as a Democrat -- I think she's really genuine in that she wants to find a way to reform the process," Fink said. "(Benson's talk) re-emphasized the point that we need to reform the system because it's broken."

"The more the citizens are informed about the partisan nature of the process, the more pressure there will be on the legislators and the political process generally to reform the system," said Benson.

Any current Michigan resident can enter the contest as an individual, team or class.

The contest begins April 20, when the software will be fully functional and available.

To register for the competition, go to www.michiganredistricting.org.

Published: Fri, Apr 1, 2011