5 concerns about Michigan’s redistricting proposal and what to make of them

Those opposed to the Voters Not Politicians proposal have raised several concerns over its fairness. Here, a video from the Michigan Freedom Fund played at the state GOP convention in August tells delegates that their families couldn’t serve on the commission proposed by VNP. That’s actually true.

Nov. 7 update: One woman’s Facebook post leads to Michigan vote against gerrymandering

Whether it’s in support or opposition, Michigan’s Proposal 2 — which would create a citizens redistricting commission responsible for drawing voting district lines instead of state lawmakers — is the object of passion.

Bridge series on ballot issues

Bridge Magazine is providing an in-depth look this week at three statewide ballot proposals Michigan voters will decide Nov. 6.

Throughout this crucial election year, Bridge and the nonprofit Center for Michigan are providing fact-based, data-driven information to voters about the elections for governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State and other statewide and legislative offices. This includes ballot initiatives. Our ballot issue coverage began Tuesday continues through Thursday.

Proposal 2 (redistricting)

Proposal 3 (voting access)

Proposal 1 (legalizing recreational marijuana)


Today we explore the five biggest objections raised by opponents of the measure, which recent polls indicate is gaining broad support. Some criticisms are patently false, while others are based in fact and warrant deeper exploration.  

Proponents of Prop 2, organized by the group Voters Not Politicians, envision the commission as an antidote for a state that has long been gerrymandered every 10 years to favor the whichever party holds power (which in recent election cycles has been Republicans). VNP rallied thousands of volunteers to get more than 400,000 petition signatures without paying signature gatherers — what many have called a remarkable political feat.

Those who oppose Prop 2 say it is overreaching and heavy with flaws; such as a requirement that the commission include four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents selected at random. This, critics say, creates an unaccountable, potentially partisan body that would cost the state millions of dollars. Some opponents challenged the proposal up to the state Supreme Court; others protested or organized against a Republican-nominated justice who helped ensure Prop 2 would remain on the ballot.

Bridge interviewed experts in political science, redistricting and election law to explore criticisms of the measure. Here’s what they had to say.

Commissioners would self-identify their political affiliation.

The concern: Michigan doesn’t require voters to identify party affiliation when voting, so there isn’t a clear way to know whether someone actually identifies with the party they say they do. Significant power would lie with the commission’s independents, and even independents usually have some political leaning.

That’s led some critics to wonder whether the threat of perjury is enough to prevent political gamesmanship from creeping into who applies for a seat on the commission. A video opposing Prop 2 that played at the state GOP convention shows the five independents turning blue, implying they’d really lean liberal.

What experts say: “It’s a valid issue,” said John Chamberlin, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. But “it’s not a fatal flaw.”

Under the proposal, legislative leaders in each major party retain a small amount of veto power in the selection of commission members, which Chamberlin said would eliminate the worst partisans. And “having multiple independents helps (mitigate the risk they’d lean too much one way). But at least you have a better shot at it being bipartisan than when one party controls the process. In that sense it’s a no-brainer.”

Karin Mac Donald, director of California’s Statewide Redistricting Database, said it is important that regulations be created for the application process that would require stringent vetting. She suggested requiring essays and letters of recommendation about candidate qualifications and putting them online so the public can weigh in.

“If it’s just one person (selecting the commissioners, even if it’s random) and your Secretary of State is a partisan, then I would be a little bit concerned about that, too,” Mac Donald said.

Commissioners must consider “communities of interest

The concern: One of the most important criteria commissioners would have to consider in drawing maps is that they reflect “communities of interest” within Michigan.

It would be a brand new standard in Michigan redistricting. Many are worried the term’s ambiguity leaves too much up to interpretation and could lead to unfair manipulation of district lines.

“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,” said Ken Sikkema, a senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants who has served as a Republican leader in both the house and senate. “I am not prepared to support putting something in the state constitution when I don’t have a clue as to what it means.”

What experts say: The National Conference of State Legislatures defines communities of interest as: “Geographical areas, such as neighborhoods of a city or regions of a state, where the residents have common political interests that do not necessarily coincide with the boundaries of a political subdivision, such as a city or county.”

Mac Donald has studied the “communities of interest” standard in redistricting for two decades. She said, “I would come down on the side of leaving it undefined.”

In California, which has a redistricting commission similar to the one proposed in Prop 2, the commission’s multi-party structure (and the often well-meaning nature of people who choose to serve) means commissioners have sniffed out partisanship and not given it much weight in determining communities of interest, she said. The flexibility of the definition allows the standard to adapt to communities’ electoral needs, many of which policy makers might not anticipate on their own.

David Daley, author of "Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn't Count," a book on gerrymandering, and a supporter of Prop 2 in Michigan, said legislators already make decisions about communities when redistricting — just without public input. “Better to have the people making that decision be citizens using a rigorous process than politicians using a secret process to try to entrench themselves in office.”

Prop 2 is more expensive than the current redistricting process

The concern: The Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonpartisan public policy research group, noted in an analysis of Prop 2 that the state’s redistricting costs would increase if it passes in November.

The CRC says $878,000 was appropriated for redistricting in 2011, not including the cost to the state for defending maps in court (which experts said is usually fairly significant). Under Prop 2, the state would appropriate $4.6 million annually for the commission until all legal challenges to its work is complete. The commission would be required to return any unused funds, but it would also be allowed to use more than what’s appropriated.

What experts say: “This is a more expensive way to do democracy. I would argue that that expense is worth it,” said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who tracks redistricting around the country.  

Levitt said Americans spend very little on elections compared to other countries, and that the added cost is likely to be a tiny fraction of the state’s total budget. The Citizens Research Council estimated that over the 10-year cycle, funding for redistricting would be around $10 million — .01 percent of the General Fund or about $1 per Michigander per decade.

“The citizens would be asking other Michiganders to pay a little more for a process that’s much more fair,” Levitt said.

Thousands of people would be excluded from the commission.

The concern: There’s a pretty extensive list of those who would be excluded from serving on the redistricting commission, presumably to keep politically connected people from seeking a seat:

  • A partisan candidate or elected official in local, state or federal government
  • An officer in a political party
  • A consultant or employee for a political candidate, campaign or PAC
  • Legislative staffers
  • Registered lobbyists and their employees
  • Unclassified state employees, except those who work for public universities, the courts or the armed forces
  • The parent, child or spouse of any of the above people, including stepparents and children

The last one is the real kicker for many opponents. There are many low-level partisan elected officials (such a precinct delegate or township clerk) whose entire family would be excluded from serving for six years after their relative held or ran for office.

“It’s the principle of it. That people by virtue of who they’re related to are excluded from participating in what’s supposed to be a citizens’ panel? That’s ridiculous. It’s a violation of their 14th and 1st amendment rights,” Tony Daunt, executive director of conservative advocacy organization the Michigan Freedom Fund, told Bridge in late August.

What experts say: “Michigan went quite far in its conflict of interest rules,” Levitt of Loyola Law School said. “California’s limitations are a little bit less strict; other states have even fewer restrictions.”

“The idea was to get people who aren’t going to leave big partisan fingerprints on this process,” said U-M’s Chamberlin, who said there is validity to the claim that it is overly exclusive. “On the other hand, it invites into the process a lot more people (because of the transparency requirements). Compared to the status quo, this looks pretty good.”

Both Levitt and Mac Donald said Californians were worried their rules excluded too many qualified candidates, but there were thousands more qualified people eligible than expected.

There would be no way for voters to remove commissioners

The concern: The only way for a commissioner to be removed from office is by a vote of at least 10 of the other 12 commissioners, which insulates each member from being unseated by legislators, the governor, or voters themselves.

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Markman addressed this in his dissent from the ruling that kept Prop 2 on the ballot. He wrote that the proposal would replace the accountability system of the legislature — in which voters choose their representative every cycle — with a commission of people “who are not in any way chosen by the people, representative of the people, or accountable to the people. This, in my judgment, reflects a fundamental alteration in the relationship between the people and their representatives.”

What experts say: “They’re right about the fact that it is very hard to remove one of these commissioners,” Levitt said, calling it an impeachment standard — the commissioner has to be considered negligent in the eyes of nearly all their peers to be removed.

All four experts, however, said that practically speaking, legislators aren’t held accountable under the current system of redistricting either.

“The interesting thing about legislative acts is that voters can hold their legislators accountable when they don’t like what their legislator’s done. Redistricting is the one thing that doesn’t fit that pattern, because the same people who would be pissed off before the legislature does the redistricting are not the same people who are voting on that legislator’s performance afterwards,” Levitt said.

Daley, the book author and Michigan redistricting critic, said: “The folks who are drawing these lines right now are partisans behind closed doors who have drawn themselves districts in which they are almost completely unaccountable to the voters. They, in many ways, can’t be voted out, either.”

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trout river
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 9:06am

I'm voting Yes because it takes out the big money special interests and their politicians and places the power exactly where it should be - in the hands of ordinary citizens. By design, this process will force cooperation and compromise, which is what our founding fathers envisioned over 200 years ago for our democratic republic.

Mon, 10/29/2018 - 2:02am

Are you kidding me? Big money, especially big out of state money, is what pulled this thing together and is trying to get it passed and get the Democrats the SOS position.

Wed, 10/10/2018 - 9:21am

There is no such thing as a non-partisan person. Are we going to look at a selected person’s ballots for the past 15 years to determine how they voted? What about the person who voted, for example, for Bernie only because Hillary was so bad, but that person is devoutly Republican? Is the person who votes for a woman’s right to choose, or a person’s right to select their mate without government interference, but usually votes for the republican candidate when abortion or LGBT rights are not being considered an independent person? Both sides of the aisle will fight tooth and nail to get the correct independent person on the committee.

We would have been better voting for an algorithm and once chosen, let a computer define the districts.

Wed, 10/10/2018 - 2:48pm

Arjay, I asked myself the same question - whether they would look at a person's past voting record to see how they lean. Cuz you're right...everyone leans. I still have not been convinced that using a program to pick would NOT be better.

Wed, 10/10/2018 - 3:32pm

None of the questions you asked are considered in the selection process. Individuals self-identify their political affiliation.

People get, I think, disproportionally worked up about this. The real impact of Prop 2 is not that that we're going from total partisan bias to perfect non-partisan independence. That's not a realistic goal. The more important change is that we're going from an opaque system to a public one. Even in a worst-case partisan scenario, where every single "independent" is somehow actually a secret partisan shill for the same party, we'll still be better off than we are now, because the process will be conducted transparently.

As for using an algorithm, there's nothing in Prop 2 that precludes that. If the commissioners can find an algorithm or set of formulae that they all trust they're free to use it. But algorithms are written by human beings; there's nothing inherently independent or trustworthy about them. I don't understand why people keep bringing this up as a magic bullet to solve what is inherently a complex problem.

See here for a few examples of simplistic algorithms; notice how each one has its flaws and skews the data differently:


V. Putin
Thu, 10/11/2018 - 12:28pm

We write algorithm for you!

Wed, 10/17/2018 - 7:31am

I like to think of myself as non-partisan for a couple of reasons, but the main one being in my 30+ years voting, I haven't cared a bit about the letter after a person's name and vote for the person I believe will get the job at hand done at the federal, state and local levels. I don't vote for the lesser of two evils even when given only two choices if those two choices are poor choices. I've been a registered Independent voter since the day I turned 18 and I will remain that way. A candidate for office may believe in A, B and C and I may not like their view on C, but I'm able to get past my personal beliefs if the issue is one that is for the greater good.

All of that said, I do believe there are non-partisan voters/people. I would have no problem at all exposing my voting record exposed to prove my non-partisanship. Here's hoping that there are others that feel the same.

Sun, 10/28/2018 - 4:02pm

The legislative team that drew up the last redistricting lines used was done by a computer. The problem is if you program to get particular results, you will get them. That is how the districts got drawn to give an advantage in political power to the Republicans.
The differences between the current procedure and the proposed procedure is the public meetings that will be held and the use of the efficiency ratio to verify the distribution of party power.

Sun, 10/28/2018 - 4:02pm

The legislative team that drew up the last redistricting lines used was done by a computer. The problem is if you program to get particular results, you will get them. That is how the districts got drawn to give an advantage in political power to the Republicans.
The differences between the current procedure and the proposed procedure is the public meetings that will be held and the use of the efficiency ratio to verify the distribution of party power.

John Chamberlin
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 12:22pm

"The Citizens Research Council estimated that over the 10-year cycle, funding for redistricting would be around $10 million — .01 percent of the General Fund or about $1 per Michigander per decade."

This comes to a dime a year from each of us to have our system of representative government not be corrupted by partisan gerrymandering. That's one of the best bargains around.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 12:23pm

Still missing the part about how replacing one form of gerrymandering with another form of gerrymandering will solve the problem of gerrymandering?

Wed, 10/10/2018 - 3:38pm

Hello again Kevin,

This proposal doesn't replace gerrymandering with anything. It provides a new process for redistricting. It will help to solve the problem of gerrymandering by making the process more transparent, and by putting people in charge of it who aren't directly incentivized to game the system for political power.

Does that answer your question? In our last conversation, your position was that gerrymandering is a good thing, because Republicans are currently using it to keep Democrats out of power. Am I to understand from this latest post that your position has changed, and you're now anti-gerrymandering?

Kevin Grand
Thu, 10/11/2018 - 1:45pm

No, Josh, the new process will do no such thing.

All the democrats are doing is playing the odds that they will achieve a simple majority on this "non-partisan" commission. So, unless you have a method to make 100% certain that these self-described "independents" are really without ANY party preference whatsoever, that dog won't hunt.

You've also completely misread my position, so let me re-state it again so that there is no confusion; Replacing one form of gerrymandering with another form of gerrymandering WILL NOT IN ANY CONCEIVABLE WAY fix gerrymandering.

Yes, I don't care to see the democrats gain a larger hold of our government. All one needs to do is look at what they have done in Detroit and scale that up to the state level the see the damage that will bring here in Michigan. Actually, you don't need to imagine the damage that will bring, just see Exhibit "A" Illinois and Exhibit "B" California. BOTH states are spending themselves into bankruptcy and BOTH states are seeing their populations run for the hills as fast as they can.

While you might want to see another "Lost Decade" here in Michigan. I do not.

And this may come as a shock to most readers, but there are no provisions in either the US or Michigan Constitutions to create or sustain either the republican or democrat parties. There was a reason why they were left out.

They came into existence over time and embedded themselves deep into the political process through the years (and against the strong warnings made at the beginning of our republic).

You will not fix that underlying problem with this proposal.

All Prop 2 accomplishes is literally moving around the deck chairs.

The problem remains.

Sat, 10/13/2018 - 5:01pm

Imagine being such a partisan hack. Michigan's lost decade had far more to do with the global economic melt down and the reduction in manufacturing base that occurred all across the Upper Midwest due to offshoring and automation than it did with Democratic control.

But it should come as no shock that a blind partisan has no issues with a blindly partisan map, as long as it's in his interest. Fact is, Arizona's independent board has resulted in some of the fairest districting of any state. But you don't care about a fair map, you just want Republicans to maintain control at any and all costs

Kevin Grand
Sat, 10/20/2018 - 11:49am

If you mean that I do not want to see the democrats do to the state of Michigan what they had done to Detroit, I have already provided that answer multiple times already.

And for the record, LEARN some Michigan History before you post!

The democrats held that nice corner office in the Romney Building ('02-'10) as well as controlled the House ('06-'10)...so they DID have a hand in that "Lost Decade".

Thu, 10/25/2018 - 3:49pm

If you read Proposal 2, it says that any new map MUST receive the support of BOTH parties' 4-member delegations.

Even if the five "independents" are all secret agent liberals (or conservatives) any map will require both a majority of the 13-member commission AND at least 2 of the 4 Republicans AND at least 2 of the 4 Democrats.

Yes, the system under Proposal 2 will be far more fair and less partisan than the current one-party gerrymandering system.

Yi-Li Wu
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 2:12pm

Human beings are deeply flawed, yet they are also capable of great goodness. The genius of Proposal 2 is that it contains a robust core of checks and balances which curbs individual bias, while fostering compromise and civic-mindedness.

The proposal's framers studied the best practices of other states, as well as getting feedback from Michiganders in 33 town halls. The proposed independent citizens redistricting commission consists of 4 people from each of the major parties, plus 5 who are not affiliated with the big two. For maps to be adopted, 2 from each of these groups must all agree, compelling compromise. The proposal requires 10 public hearings before maps are even drawn, and another 5 after maps are proposed. The commission's meetings are public and all information they use to formulate or assess the maps must be placed on the public record. The proposal also makes a provision for funding the commission, so that partisan legislators cannot cripple or control it by withholding money. In short: a transparent, accountable system, independent of the partisan legislators, that listens to and works for ordinary Michiganders. Compare this to the corrupt current system, monopolized by the majority party, which works with special interests behind closed doors to manipulate maps, creating safe districts that ensure they will get re-elected and maintain their majority no matter how poorly they serve the voters.

If you are content with politicians rigging maps and treating you like a political plaything, then stick with the status quo. If you think Michiganders deserve better, vote YES ON 2.

Thomas E Graham
Thu, 10/11/2018 - 8:49am

Proposal 2 will eliminate the only black majority district we have. We only have that district due to gerrymandering and the requirement of compactness will force map drawers to eliminate it. Democrats seem to think this is okay because those people will be absorbed into Democrat districts and all black people are Democrats anyway. I consider this proposal intentionally discriminatory.
More competitive districts means more turnover of incumbents which means less seniority in the US House which means less influence in decisions about where financial appropriations go.
More competitive districts also means more special interest money and more political favors, moving the corruption from the map drawing process into the election process.
All things considered, this proposal, intentionally or not, makes things worse for everyone.
Vote NO on 2!!!!

Becky McKenney
Fri, 10/12/2018 - 11:00am

Proposal 2 would still require compliance with the Voting Rights Act. But it isn't necessary to create an 85% minority majority district to comply with the act. Yes on 2!

Dan Smith
Thu, 10/11/2018 - 10:09am

The proposal favors (most) cities and slights townships. All but three cities have non-partisan elections, thus a sitting mayor or council member would be eligible to serve on the commission; while the spouse/parent/child of a losing township trustee candidate would be excluded. Similarly, serving school board members could be on the commission.

That, in turn, means that the proposal tilts rather left/Democratic as cities and school board tend to lean in that direction.

Doug L
Sat, 10/13/2018 - 11:05pm

My first thought was, vote yes, eliminate one side drawing out political districts! Then I realized, there's no accountability for the board members. You can't vote them in, you can't vote them out. There's no recognition of the Libertarian or other minor parties. This would be enshrined in the constitution. Overall, I like the idea, but this proposal is not good enough to put into the constitution. I'm voting against it.

Fri, 10/26/2018 - 9:44am

Agree, these are same concerns I have...in addition to concern of who are these so called independents? Why not include libertarians, like 4 libertarians, and 4 independents?People can be easily bribed, difficult to get rid of corrupt ones, just feel it should be more clearly written, also they get paid alot of $ to do something that takes how long?

Thu, 11/01/2018 - 4:13pm

The devil is in the details. That the proposal deliberately includes the two parties is also why I voted against it. If it eliminated the partisan representation I would support it. IMO the problems in government aren't that we choose from two, it's that we ONLY choose from two. And deep down, they are far too similar.

Fri, 11/02/2018 - 8:01am

Actually Prop 2 mandates a plurality of 5 non-major Party commissioners. I.E. Libertarians, Green Party, etc.

With the status quo, those 3rd Party folks are ALWAYS shut out.

So this concern is not only addressed, this Proposal gives favor to what you want.

Why not reconsider?

Michael Leblanc
Fri, 10/19/2018 - 6:34pm

Proposal 2 is too important to vote down over the minor issues raised so far. If any of these issues cause a real problem once instituted it can simply be fixed with another ballot proposal.

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 10:36am

I'm voting NO on this. The phrase "Communities of Interest" negates everything. All your doing is changing one group of partisan hacks for another group of partisan hacks and increasing cost. Who cares if it is public. Does anybody believe that will have an impact?
This has been done this way for years. There is no evidence that this change will improve anything significantly and just lead to more beuracracy.

Lori L McDiarmid
Thu, 10/25/2018 - 9:10pm

You need a serious update on the more than 1 million dollars that the Michigan Freedom Fund is now using to oppose the proposal and an accountability of who donates to that fund!