News Story

How Independent Will Michigan’s New Redistricting Commission Be?

California’s experience provides cause for concern

In 2018, Michigan voters approved a new constitutional amendment establishing an independent redistricting commission. The idea: have legislative district lines determined by a bipartisan group of people who are not politicians, rather than by lawmakers and the governor. It sounded like a reasonable plan, but questions remain about how to remove partisanship from this process.

In 2010, California became one of the first states to use such a commission. Its commission consists of five Democrats, five Republicans and four people who claim allegiance to neither dominant political party.

According to an investigation conducted by ProPublica, California’s commission was immediately gamed by the Democratic party and its allies. The report noted in 2011:

The citizens’ commission had pledged to create districts based on testimony from the communities themselves, not from parties or statewide political players. To get around that, 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.

When they appeared before the commission, those groups identified themselves as ordinary Californians and did not disclose their ties to the party. One woman who purported to represent the Asian community of the San Gabriel Valley was actually a lobbyist who grew up in rural Idaho, and lives in Sacramento.

In one instance, party operatives invented a local group to advocate for the Democrats’ map.

Some of the first commissioners in California now tour the country and speak in support of creating similar redistricting commissions elsewhere. The Gongwer news service recently covered (subscription required) a meeting that featured a panel discussion on the idea.

The former commissioners presented themselves as a bipartisan group supporting a nonpartisan process. But there’s an element of partisanship inherent in these commissions before they even begin: Efforts to create them are most often proposed in states where Republican lawmakers are in power and might draw district lines. Not to mention that a major part of the national effort is led by a partisan: Eric Holder, President Barack Obama’s long-serving attorney general.

The former California commissioners don’t appear to be all that nonpartisan, according to an analysis of publicly available records. For example, the Michigan event included Stan Forbes, who identifies as an independent. Forbes, according to the Davis Enterprise, “has been traveling the nation to help other states develop similar programs for redrawing district maps” while touting himself as an independent voice.

But as the Enterprise also reported, Forbes has praised California for “tak[ing] the lead in a lot of good, progressive trends.” And according to the Sacramento Business Journal, Forbes was elected to the Davis City Council on “a slow growth, anti-big box retail” platform. Further, it said, he fought against new businesses opening in his town, “using the city council as a bully pulpit,” and wanted to “de-emphasize the automobile.”

Another panelist touting redistricting commissions was Gil Ontai, described by Gongwer as “an architect who identifies as a Republican.” But on his publicly available Facebook page, Ontai “likes” the pages of several Democratic politicians, a host of left-wing causes and the leftist economist Robert Reich. He regularly posts messages in support of liberal issues, criticizing President Trump, the Republican party and Fox News, and praising MSNBC and former President Barack Obama.

A third panelist, Andre Parvenu, is presented as “an urban planner and an independent voter.” But Independent Voter News had this to say about his application to become a member of the California redistricting commission:

M. Andre Parvenu of Culver City apparently first identified himself as a member of the Peace and Freedom Party but then sent a follow-up email stating that he is in fact a decline-to-state voter, not registered with a political party. Asked about the discrepancy at an applicant review panel on September 9, 2010, Mr. Parvenu stated that he had voted for the Peace and Freedom Party in the past but now prefers to be nonpartisan, and thought it would be “better to go decline to state [sic],” adding, “throughout this process I want to remain neutral.”

The Peace and Freedom Partyy is a far-left party “committed to socialism, democracy, ecology, feminism and racial equality,” attempting “to build a mass based socialist party throughout the country.” Parvenu may be an independent in that he does not align with either of the main political parties, but it appears he believes the California Democratic Party is too conservative.

The fourth panelist was Cynthia Dai, who identifies as a Democrat. The final panelist was Nancy Wang, executive director of the group supporting Michigan’s new redistricting commission.

A 2018 report from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy explained the process Michigan had in place then to draw legislative lines, and it analyzed the ballot proposal. In assessing the best arguments for and against the proposal, it concluded that “there is some evidence to suggest that Michigan’s current district maps may have been gerrymandered, providing a partisan advantage to Republicans. [While] the most prominent argument against Proposal 2 is that it relies too heavily on poorly defined concepts and could result in an endless litigation battle over the implications of these terms.”