Emergency managers and gerrymandering: How Republican attacks on
democracy led to Flint water crisis
In 2012, Michigan voters re-elected Barack Obama by a wide nine-point margin of victory. The also re-elected Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow in a landslide, gave more votes to Democratic congressional candidates than Republicans, and voted for a Democratic state legislative candidates by an eight-point spread as well. So why did Republicans maintain their dominant grip on Michigan politics, with majorities in both the state legislature and U.S. House? Because they’ve rigged its electoral and political institutions to their benefit, through gerrymandering and anti-democratic “emergency manager” laws.
After his initial victory in 2010’s GOP wave gave Republicans total control over state government, Gov. Rick Snyder and his party set out to insulate their political power from popular dissent. To that end, Republicans once again passed aggressive gerrymanders of congressional and legislative districts, solidifying their already tight grip on the electoral process.
Here's a vivid illustration: In the seven elections since 2002, Democrats have won the popular vote for the state House five times. But thanks to gerrymandering, Republicans won majorities in the chamber five times. Even in 2014, another huge year for the GOP, Michigan voters still gave more votes to Democratic candidates for the state House. And this pattern could easily continue through 2020, meaning that over the course of two decades, Republicans would have failed to win the popular vote nine out of 10 times, yet kept majorities all but two times.
Rendering legislative elections almost meaningless still wasn’t enough power to satisfy Republicans, since many key cities with large minority populations have remained Democratic strongholds, such as Detroit (which voted 98 percent for Obama) and Flint (90 percent). Republicans therefore concocted a scheme to circumvent elected local governments by having the state appoint so-called “emergency managers” to take control of local financial decisions. It was a perfect display of cynicism: Republicans in the state capital have spent years starving Detroit and other cities financially, thus paving the way for these emergency managers to swoop in and undermine pensions, promote education privatization, and dismantle public services.
The emergency manager law proved so unpopular that Michigan voters repealed it at the ballot in 2012. In response, Republicans, with their gerrymander-protected majorities, simply passed the law a second time, and added a small fiscal appropriation that rendered it immune from a ballot-box veto. (Spending laws can’t be overturned by voters via referendum.) And that’s not the only case where Republicans have over-ridden the the public’s will: They recently passed—again, with a fig-leaf appropriation—a repeal of straight-ticket voting that would likely lengthen voting lines in urban, heavily minority precincts. Guess what? Voters had previously rejectedprecisely such an effort at the ballot box, just as they did with emergency managers.
So what do these anti-democratic measures have to do with Flint’s current crisis, where lead has poisoned children and made tap water unusable for 100,000 people? It turns out that Snyder’s government had installed an emergency manager to usurp Flint’s fiscal policy authority. At the state’s direction, that emergency manager made the decision to switch from Detroit’s water system to contaminated Flint River water, even though the move would not save money. Instead, it would help undermine Detroit’s water system and pave the way toward its eventual privatization.
As we’ve recently learned, Snyder’s administration knew about the public health concerns regarding Flint water long before the current ongoing scandal, yet it did nothing to prevent harm to the residents there. Snyder and the GOP have willfully neglected public safety because they have simply come to expect insulation from public opinion among the voting electorate. At best, Gov. Snyder might pay the ultimate political price and be forced to resign or even face criminal prosecution due to the scandal in Flint, but Republicans’ grip on the legislature (thanks to gerrymandering) and local governments (via emergency managers) will remain.
The Michigan Republican Party is successfully waging a war on democracy itself in service of an ideological crusade against government services, with disastrous consequences for the general public. But there is a way to fight back: Democrats, liberals, good government reformers, and anyone else disgusted with Michigan’s anti-democratic politics can start by putting a measure on the ballot to create an independent, California-style redistricting that would undo the GOP’s gerrymanders. The only question is, who will step up to this very badly needed task?