Voters in Michigan will decide on a ballot proposal in November that ostensibly seeks to eliminate gerrymandered congressional districts in the Mitten State. Voters Not Politicians -- an advocacy group linked to the Democratic Party -- convinced Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers to add the proposal to the ballot. Two attempts by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce to prevent it appearing on the ballot were rejected first by the Michigan Court of Appeals and then the Michigan Supreme Court.  

Coming in at over six pages long, election officials say that Proposal 2 on the November 5 ballot is one of the most complex such proposals seen in recent times. If it passes, the proposal would amend Michigan’s state constitution. If the proposal is passed, the state constitution would be amended to form an independent commission to determine redistricting. Currently, only California has a system resembling Michigan’s ballot proposal. California established an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission in 2008. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is running for governor, asked the state supreme court to throw out the ballot measure. It would explicitly prohibit the legislature from reapportioning voting districts.

The 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are apportioned according to the decennial U.S. Census, as required by the U.S. Constitution. Gerrymandering is the drawing of congressional district lines according to partisan considerations, thus ensuring that one party’s voters are in the majority in each district. Opposing voters can also be lumped together in districts so as to minimize those voters’ political influence. Critics of the current congressional districts, which were formulated by the Republican-controlled state legislature, contend that Michigan is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. Democrats point out that despite winning more than half of the votes in the state House election in 2016, Republicans won most of the seats.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, nine of Michigan’s 14 seats are held by the GOP.

While the U.S. Constitution determines when redistricting happens, it is the state constitutions that determine how it happens. Of course, the problem is that when one party is in charge of the legislature, the districts are often redrawn to favor that party.

The proposal appearing on the ballot on Election Day in November would establish an  Independent Citizen’s Redistricting Commission. Voters Not Politicians have pushed for what it calls a nonpartisan commission to be in charge of redistricting. If passed, the constitutional amendment would form independent commission consisting of 13 citizens who would meet every decade, once the federal census is complete, and would determine state and congressional districts.

The 13 members of the commission would have four Democratic-affiliated, four Republican-affiliated, and five independent members. The members of the commission would be chosen at random by Michigan’s Secretary of State, who would also be charged with ensuring that the commission runs independently of parties. Applications to participate on the commission would be made available to citizens, but they will also be sent at random to 10,000 registered voters. However, not all residents of Michigan will be allowed to join the Commission. There will be guidelines for each member:

  • be registered and eligible to vote in the state of Michigan;
  • not currently or in the past six years have been a declared candidate or elected official of any federal, state, or local office; an officer or member of the governing body of a federal, state, or local political party; 
  • a paid consultant of any elected official, political candidate, or political action committee; 
  • an employee of the state legislature;
  • a registered lobbyist;
  • not be a parent, stepparent, child, stepchild, or spouse to anyone specified in the above point.

Also, the proposal also requires that Commission members may not hold a partisan elective office at any level in Michigan.

The ballot proposal would also allow Commission members to hire consultants and personnel, including attorneys, to assist will collecting information and analysis. Also, a minimum of 15 public hearings are required during the planning process.

In a report by the Detroit Free Press, an attorney for Voters Not Politicians estimated that the commission will cost the state at least $5.5 million a year, based on an amount equal to 25 percent of the current budget of the Michigan Secretary of State that would be appropriated to support its work.

The language of the ballot proposal reads:

Proposal 18-2

“A proposed constitutional amendment to establish a commission of citizens with exclusive authority to adopt district boundaries for the Michigan senate, Michigan House of Representatives and U.S. Congress, every 10 years.

“This proposed constitutional amendment would:

Create a commission of 13 registered voters randomly selected by the Secretary of State:

4 each who self-identify as affiliated with the 2 major political parties; and
5 who self-identify as unaffiliated with major political parties.

Prohibit partisan officeholders and candidates, their employees, certain relatives, and lobbyists from serving as commissioners.

Establish new redistricting criteria including geographically compact and contiguous districts of equal population, reflecting Michigan’s diverse population and communities of interest. Districts shall not provide disproportionate advantages to political parties or candidates.

Require an appropriation of funds for commission operations and commissioner compensation.”

Republicans have argued that Michigan’s 2011 redistricting map meets the so-called Apol Standards for fairness, which have guided the state’s redistricting since 1982. As mandated by the Michigan Supreme Court, the standards dictate that districts must be compact and contiguous, and in the case of legislative districts, must preserve county lines when possible. Republicans also argue that their party’s recent success in winning a majority in both the state house and senate is because of the political geography of Michigan, whereby Democrats and minority voters are concentrated in urban areas such as Detroit, Flint, Lansing, and Grand Rapids. Rural areas are dominated by Republicans in the legislature. Most of the representatives for Detroit, whether at the state or federal level, are black Democrats. 

Detroit and the rest of Michigan

Democrats point to Michigan’s 14th U.S. Congressional District as a example of what they say is a GOP strategy to weaken Democratic votes. The district stretches from downtown Detroit and some of the city’s poorest and also wealthy neighborhoods to beyond the city limits to incorporate the Pontiac and Farmington Hills suburbs, stretching the district into an irregular configuration. The 14th Congressional District is 58 percent black, while the neighboring 13th Congressional District is 56 percent black, and have the largest proportion of black voters of any district in the state. Both districts cover the city of Detroit and both have been represented by black Democrats. In either case, the FiveThreeEight political analysis website notes that a Republican candidate to unseat these Democrats would but about a one percent chance of success. Democrats have also accused GOP legislators of passing designed to disenfranchise minority voters, who tend to vote for Democrats.

The FiveThreeEight website also provided a map of Congressional Districts in the state if they are drawn to favor Democrats. In that case, the website predicts that Democrats would hold nine seats while the Republican would hold five. If the Congressional Districts were configured according to county boundaries, Republicans would likely hold eight seats to six for Democrats.

Arguments for and against

In an exclusive interview with Spero News, Michael Van Beck of the non-partisan Mackinac Center provided an analysis of the choices facing Michigan’s voters with the ballot proposal to create the independent voting district reapportionment commission. Van Beck noted that Michigan’s 1963 constitution originally designated a commission to formulate voting districts. However, the NAACP, Detroit’s erstwhile Democrat mayor, and a group affiliated with the Mexican-American community successfully argued before Michigan’s state Supreme Court in 1982 that Michigan’s original commission on voting districts violated the U.S. Constitution and its equal protection clause, and ordered that voting district reapportionment be done according to a plan designated by the court. At time, the state legislature was dominated by Democrats. Currently, voting districts are apportioned by the state legislature, which is now dominated by Republicans.

Van Beek told Spero News, “Because of these legal rulings and others, Michigan really doesn’t have its own set of binding rules for redistricting.” He added that the state legislature would have to comply with federal laws, such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 
Van Beek explained in a brief he has produced about Proposal 2 the various arguments for and against the measure. One argument in favor of Proposal 2 is that evidence exists that suggests that the current district maps may have been gerrymandered, thus providing a partisan advantage to Republicans. The most prominent argument against Proposal 2, however, is that it relies too much on poorly defined concepts and could result in endless litigation battles over the implications of these terms. “Proposal 2 would significantly change the way Michigan draws its district lines for political representation,” Van Beek added. “This report should help voters get a better sense for how redistricting works, the changes Proposal 2 would produce, and enable them to weigh out the arguments on both sides of this issue.”
The full study can be found here:

VotersNotPoliticians has been endorsed by numerous labor unions, progressive organizations, and politicians. Among them are: ACLU, Arab American Institute, League of Women Voters, NAACP, Sierra Club, AFSCME, UAW, United Steel Workers, Michigan Education Association, and former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

VotersNotPoliticians got a boost from the national Democrat party this summer in the form of $250,000 in funding. The National Redistricting Action Fund, headed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, is a non-profit affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Holder said in a statement in September that Michigan’s current redistricting process amounts to “partisan gerrymandering” that “leads to dysfunction, polarization, and the legitimate belief held by average Americans that, for them, our political system just does not work.” Holder went on to declare, “Regardless of party affiliation, that’s not good for our democracy.” He added, “Maps that are drawn by a truly independent commission will help put men and women into government who are more responsive to the people they are supposed to represent."

California dreaming

California’s redistricting commission, according Mackinac Center analysis, serves as the model for the commission proposed for Michigan. An investigative journalism organization -- Pro Publica -- released a story in 2011 alleging that the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CCRC) was manipulated by the California Democratic Party. According to Pro Publica, that while the commission was pledged to based its decisions on community input, Democrats “surreptitiously enlisted local voters, elected officials, labor unions and community groups to testify in support of configurations that coincided with the party’s interests.” Also, in hearings before the CCRC, those groups purported themselves to be ordinary Californians and did not disclose their ties to the Democratic party. One woman who said she represented the Asian community was actually a lobbyist who grew up in rural Idaho. Also, party operatives invented a local group to advocate for the Democrats’ map.

“As part of a national look at redistricting, ProPublica reconstructed the Democrats’ stealth success in California, drawing on internal memos, emails, interviews with participants and map analysis. What emerges is a portrait of skilled political professionals armed with modern mapping software and detailed voter information who managed to replicate the results of the smoked-filled rooms of old. 

“The losers in this once-a-decade reshaping of the electoral map, experts say, were the state’s voters,” said ProPublica’s report. “The intent of the citizens’ commission was to directly link a lawmaker’s political fate to the will of his or her constituents. But as ProPublica’s review makes clear, Democratic incumbents are once again insulated from the will of the electorate.”



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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