News Story

Will Michigan Follow California’s Lead In Redistricting?

Voters will decide who should draw political districts

When voters in the state go to the polls on Nov. 6, they will be faced with a highly consequential ballot initiative that would redo how state and federal voting districts are redrawn.

Proposal 2, spearheaded by a group calling itself Voters Not Politicians, would place in the Michigan Constitution a 13-member commission given the responsibility of redrawing district lines for state legislators and Michigan’s members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The commission would be made up of four Democrats, four Republicans, and five independents, and be overseen by the secretary of state. Currently, legislators draw district lines, something Proposal 2 would explicitly forbid.

Proposal 2 also outlines factors that would disqualify potential commission members. To be eligible to serve, a person cannot have declared candidacy, been elected to a political office, or been a governing member of a political party in the last six years. Registered lobbyists, paid political consultants and employees of the Michigan Legislature would also be barred from serving (but not people who work for other branches of government). Additionally, Proposal 2 would ban the parents, stepparents, children, stepchildren or spouse of a disqualified person from serving on the commission.

A policy brief from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy detailed several arrangements called for by the proposal.

Advocates of Proposal 2 frequently cite gerrymandering in favor of Republicans as a top reason why the process by which Michigan draws its voting districts should be reformed. Proponents cite some statistical tests that could suggest gerrymandering may have occurred when district maps were drawn after the 2000 and 2010 censuses, years when Republicans controlled the Michigan Legislature.

An analysis by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan argued Proposal 2 would make the redistricting process less partisan.

“Proposal 2 reduces the opportunity to gerrymander districts by pushing those in the redistricting process towards consensus,” the analysis said. “Introducing independent commissioners into the process and requiring compromise in the voting scheme make it difficult for one party to maintain unitary control over the process. This forces parties to negotiate down from their extreme positions towards plans that are more balanced.”

A video by Michigan Freedom Fund, by contrast, says Proposal 2 will continue the practice of gerrymandering and skew the electoral map in favor of Democrats.

“Here in Michigan, these liberal special interests will skew our electoral map and lead to a generation of Democrat control,” the video narrator said. “Every conservative reform of the last 10 years is at stake.”

Proposal 2 backers say the ballot measure will increase the transparency of the redistricting process. The proposal requires the commission to hold a minimum of 10 public hearings and review any plans that are submitted by the public. It also must make public any plans the commission is considering.

The Citizens Research Council said in its analysis that the “current redistricting process is not very transparent. Because the Michigan legislature and the governor are not subject to Freedom of Information Act requirements, the only discussions available to the public on redistricting issues are those that occur during formal legislative deliberation, such as committee meetings.”

The Freedom Fund said in its video that instead of bringing transparency, Proposal 2 would reduce political accountability.

“You won’t be able to hold your representative, the governor, or even the Supreme Court accountable,” the video stated. “The process will be run by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats who don’t answer to you.”

Another argument sometimes made in favor of Proposal 2 is that Michigan’s constitution should include rules for redistricting. It does include a process for redistricting, which was ratified in 1963, but in 1982, the state’s highest court ruled it unconstitutional. Advocates of Proposal 2 say updating the redistricting process in the constitution would create more stability and clarity for the process.

A lawsuit by Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution has challenged the ballot proposal, arguing that it would alter the Michigan Constitution too much. The Michigan Supreme Court decided in July, however, to allow the proposal to move forward on the ballot.

One argument in opposition to Proposal 2 is that its terms are too vague, and it gives tremendous power and discretion to the secretary of state in defining what they mean. Giving a single state official this much power in the redistricting process could make the commission ripe for legal challenges.

Proposal 2 requires the secretary of state to “ensure that [applicants for the commission], as closely as possible, mirror the geographic and demographic makeup of the state,” but it is not clear which demographic factors are the most important.

The proposal also requires that the commission draws districts to reflect “communities of interest,” or populations sharing “cultural or historical characteristics or economic interests.”

Ken Sikkema, a senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants, told Bridge Magazine that in other states which use the standard, it’s up to commissioners to define “communities of interest.”

“Some other states have used the same phrase but it’s never defined, so as a practical matter it is whatever these commissioners say it is. They are allowed to define community of interest,” Sikkema said. “I am not prepared to support putting something in the state constitution when I don’t have a clue as to what it means.”

According to Bridge Magazine, Karin Mac Donald, who directs California’s statewide redistricting database, said that the “communities of interest” standard should, in fact, remain undefined. That way, the standard can adapt to electoral needs.

Opponents of Proposal 2 argue that it will not eliminate the partisan influence over the redistricting process. Since the commission would be made up of four Democrats, four Republicans, and five independents, commissioners will likely vote in blocs, with independent members being the swing votes.

University of Michigan public policy professor John Chamberlin said, “It’s a valid issue,” but “not a fatal flaw,” Bridge Magazine reported.

Another argument against Proposal 2 is that it overcompensates for a legitimate problem. Only six other states use an independent commission, like the one created by the measure, to redraw districts. Some critics argue that instead of creating a new process and commission, the state’s constitution could instead be amended in a way that makes the existing (but invalid) redistricting rules constitutional again.

Opponents also argue is that the proposed system provides no mechanism for voters to remove commissioners and that it would cost more than the current process.