Next hurdle for Michigan redistricting backers: ballot language
The court fight over Michigan’s redistricting reform ballot proposal is over, with the closely split state Supreme Court ruling late Tuesday that the proposal can appear on the November ballot.
But the next battle has already begun, and it could have a huge impact on whether the proposal passes this fall or goes down in flames.
Ballot proposals must be described to voters in 100 words or less, something that is typically challenging, but even more so with the Voters Not Politicians proposal, which seeks to amend the constitution and is seven pages long.
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Bridge spoke with a half-dozen Lansing insiders with experience negotiating the wording of proposals appearing on Michigan ballots. Many did not wish to be named because they have connections to ballot proposals approved or still being considered for the November election. They described a sometime contentious, always critical process that can make or break a proposal’s chances on election day.
Because the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party have been outspoken and powerful opponents of the measure, political consultants expect a contentious fight over ballot language.
Republicans, who controlled redistricting in both 2000 and 2010 and drew maps considered to be among the most gerrymandered in the nation, see the ballot proposal as a Democratic ploy to take power from the GOP. Stopping redistricting reform is “a hill they’re willing to die on,” said one person familiar with past ballot proposal battles.
Having lost their attempt to knock the proposal off the ballot in the Supreme Court, where five of the seven justices were nominated or appointed by Republicans, reform opponents likely see the framing of ballot language as their next battlefront.
“The 100 word summary is critically important, because that’s all the voters end up seeing,” said Mark Brewer, a former state Democratic Party chair.
Here’s the process:
Michigan’s Bureau of Elections, part of the office of the Secretary of State, drafts a ballot proposal description that is as thorough and clear as possible in 100 words or less. That draft wording is given to the state Board of Canvassers, who approve it or send it back to the Bureau of Elections for redrafting.
The process is supposed to be completed by Sept. 6, when the Secretary of State’s office hopes to have all ballot language finalized so the office can begin printing ballots.
It sounds simple, particularly since Voters Not Politicians, the citizen group behind the redistricting reform proposal, has a 98-word description of the initiative on the top of the petitions used to collect signatures to qualify to appear on the ballot.
“A proposal to amend the Michigan Constitution to create an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. If adopted, this amendment would transfer authority to draw Congressional and Legislative district lines from the Legislature and the governor to Independent Commission. The selection process will be administered by the Secretary of State. Thirteen commissioners will be randomly selected from a pool of registered voters, and consist of four members who self-identify with each of the two major political parties, and five nonaffiliated, independent members. Current and former partisan elected officials, lobbyists and party officers and their employees are not eligible to serve.
But the groups behind ballot proposals are only one voice in the decision on ballot wording. Opponents of the proposal, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce-backed Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, likely will have a say, too.
According to people who have been involved in drafting 100-word descriptions of ballot proposals, typically the Bureau of Elections invites opponents and proponents of a ballot issue to its downtown Lansing office for a meeting. There, in a spartan conference room, attorneys and political consultants from both sides offer their preferred 100 words. Sometimes the Bureau of Elections will have an initial draft of their own.
“There will be some quibbling,” said longtime political consultant Mark Grebner.
Both sides will push to include language that favors their views. As examples, Voters Not Politicians might love to include in the description that the initiative would end partisan gerrymandering; opponents could try to shoehorn in a phrase about the redistricting commissioners being paid $40,000 a year and being unelected.
Several people who spoke to Bridge said the Bureau of Elections is not shy about pushing back against proposed language it views as biased or inflammatory.
It wouldn’t be unusual for both sides to walk in with two or three versions of ballot descriptions, along with a list of words and phrases they consider unacceptable. Those ballot descriptions likely will be tested in polls and with focus groups by supporters and opponents before the two sides meet in person.
Proponents will want the wording to be as simple as possible; opponents often try to muddle the language, Brewer said.
“If you’re an opponent, you try to get confusing language in a proposal and if voters are confused they vote no,” Brewer said. “If you can’t win the war on substance, try to make it as technical and convoluted as possible.”
Director of Elections Sally Williams, with more than 30 years of experience at the Department of State, will have the final say on the draft language. Her office will deliver the draft language to the Board of Canvassers, which is required to hold a public meeting on the language. At that meeting, the two sides have another chance to argue for language they consider better for their favored outcome. Typically, only attorneys representing both sides speak at the Board of Canvassers meetings. No date for that meeting has been set.
The Board of Canvassers is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans; if the board rejects the language or splits 2-2, the Bureau of Elections goes back to the drawing board, according to Fred Woodhams, spokesperson for the Secretary of State.
Brewer said he believes some ballot proposals have failed in the past because of ballot wording. But Grebner, who is a proponent of the redistricting proposal, said he believes this measure will succeed no matter the exact language because of the proposal’s populist message.
“It’s about pissing on politicians,” Grebner said. “That’s always popular, and more so today.”
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