Will this application help Michigan select a fair redistricting commission?

Voters Not Politicians’ Communications Director Amelia Quilon speaks to a crowd of around 45 locals and volunteers at a town hall event in March at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing in south Lansing. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson unveiled for public comment a proposed application for Michigan residents who want to seek to position on a new citizens redistricting commission.  

Thursday’s announcement is the first step in a three-year process that will see the commission assume responsibility for redrawing state legislative and congressional boundaries. The new body will replace the current method for drawing political lines, which in Michigan has allowed the political party in control of Lansing to shape district boundaries, leading to endless complaints of partisan gerrymandering. 

Related: Michigan GOP files new suit to stop independent redistricting commission
August 2019: Voters Not Politicians asks to intervene in Michigan GOP redistricting suit

The commission, which is still taking shape, was created by the passage last November of a ballot initiative amending the state constitution. 

The inaugural redistricting commission process will include three phases, Benson said: 

  • Shaping and publicizing the application to serve on the commission
  • Selecting commissioners
  • Commissioners, with public input, drawing new voting district lines

“Today we’re at the first step of that first phase,” Benson said. “We see citizen engagement as part of this process from the start of phase one to the end of phase three.”

The redistricting commission will consist of 13 members: four Republicans, four Democrats and five that aren’t affiliated with either party. Their terms would expire after their duties during the next census cycle are complete.

The application released Thursday has five pages of questions, including a requirement that applicants disclose their party affiliation and certain demographic information such as gender and race. 

Most of it is intended to determine whether an applicant fits the criteria for serving on the commission, as outlined by the constitutional amendment. For example, officers in political parties and people who have recently ran for partisan elected office are among those who are ineligible. 

It also includes information that may help potential applicants determine whether they’d truly like to serve on the commission if chosen, including salary ($44,000) and time commitment estimates (there will be periods of part-time and full-time work). 

It notes that if applicants makes it to the final pool of 200, their application would be published online in full, omitting only their address, email and phone number. 

An optional essay portion allows applicants to describe why and how they affiliate with the political party they’ve chosen and why they want to serve on the commission, though these questions cannot be used in the final determination of who serves on the commission. Rather, Benson said, they’d be used to inform legislative leaders (who each have five “vetoes” of applicants) and allow the public to vet applicants. 

Applications must be notarized. Benson acknowledged this may be a barrier to some completing the application, but said the constitutional amendment requires applicants disclose their party identification under oath and that her office intends to do everything it can to ensure as many people as possible can turn in a completed form. 

Benson’s office may even host forums where people can come get their applications notarized, or provide notarization at branch offices. 

Voters Not Politicians, the group that brought the question of a redistricting commission to the 2018 ballot, lauded Benson’s approach to the process so far. 

“Voters overwhelmingly supported a transparent, citizen-centered redistricting process and we are happy to see the Secretary of State’s office is executing its administrative role in that spirit,” said the group’s Executive Director Nancy Wang. “This is an exciting opportunity to engage in our democracy and restore the people’s trust in our government.”

The process of developing and vetting the application, as well as other processes necessary to set up redistricting commission (such as the requirement to send out thousands of applications to random registered voters), is currently being paid for by existing Secretary of State resources, Benson said. 

“There’s been no allocation” from the Republican-controlled Legislature for additional funding to cover the costs of getting the redistricting commission up and running. “It’s been one of my deepest frustrations with this,” Benson said of proposed GOP budget cuts to her department. “The success of this process may very well hinge on whether the legislature funds it at every stage.”

The number of people who apply and have input on the process will depend on how much funding the Secretary of State has to implement public engagement programs.  “My hope and my expectation is that the legislature will ultimately see that,” Benson said. 

Public comment on the application will be accepted until Friday, Aug. 9. The final wording of the application will be publicly available this fall. In addition to being posted online, at least 10,000 copies of the form will be mailed to random registered voters throughout the state before the start of 2020. 

Submission of applications will close in June 2020, and then the Secretary of State’s office will contract with an outside firm to draw 200 applicants from the pool, which must be representative of the geographic and demographic diversity of the state. 

Of those 200, legislative leaders (including Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield and House Minority Leader Christine Greig) will each be allowed to strike five applicants from the pool. The 13 commissioners will be randomly selected from the final pool of 180.  

Learn more about how the redistricting commission would work once it’s seated here.

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Fri, 07/19/2019 - 8:58am

One has to wonder how thorough the vetting process will be, and to what extent will the SOS go to ensure that the makeup follows the intent of the ballot initiative. Will RINO’s or DINO’S be allowed to have one of the 4 seats allocated to their parties? Will anyone claiming to be truly independent be allowed one of the 5 seats? How does anyone truly know unless someone looks into their voting record and how they voted? Will the applicant pool match the proportions of the intended commission, and what will be done if it doesn't?

Yes, Bridge is following and advertising this closely, but how many citizens of Michigan read Bridge? My guess is that the readership of Bridge is perhaps only 1 or 2 percent, and is highly skewed to one side of the political spectrum. I’ve said since day one that finding a truly neutral group to staff the commission is nearly impossible.

Creek of Trout
Fri, 07/19/2019 - 9:35am

This system of redistricting should work because it forces compromise by requiring any proposed map must have at least the votes of 2 D's and 2 R's and 2 Independents. And most importantly, it excludes politicians from the process.

Sun, 07/21/2019 - 10:16am

But how do we really know that the people on the commission really represent the groups that they are in. Absent proof of past idealogicy, how do we know that those chosen to be X’s are really X’s.

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 3:39pm

I think that enshrining the predominance of Democratic and Republicans parties in this new Commission was a mistake, but one that is surmountable for the first effort that will start in 2021. I think that the exclusion of all party officials and their immediate families, all the way down to the level of precinct delegates, is a first step in the right direction to making the Commission as close to independent as it can be when known partisans will have a majority of the seats. I strongly suspect that the Voting Rights Act requirements to create majority-minority districts will lead to great dissatisfaction with the Congressional Districts Michigan ends up with as the result of this Commission, because of the very great concentration of Democrats and minorities in our cities and close-in suburbs, and the expected increase in the population that will be required in each of Michigan's Congressional Districts from 2022 forward.

Ben W. Washburn
Sat, 07/20/2019 - 11:56pm

I agree with the spokesperson for the ballot proposing group. The SOS is making a reasonable effort to comply with the will of the public as expressed in the passage of the redistricting proposal. I can' t detect any bias in the questionnaire.
I have had personal experience in researching and successfully proposing redistricting boundaries for the Detroit School Board and for the Wayne County Commission. Based on that experience, I will throw my hat in the ring.
In the case of the Detroit Board of Education, my main criteria was to equalize representation for all seven district offices, but to do it along boundary lines that made sense to Detroiters, that is, which made it easier to describe the boundaries of each district, by using major freeways and main streets. My recommendations were challenged by an academic group which used computer-generated boundary lines based upon census tracts and voter precincts. But, these computer-generated boundaries made no sense to the average voter. They may have been just a little egalitarian, but looked more like a jigsaw puzzle. Basic point: district boundaries need to make sense to voters; they need to identify with some established and known groups of folks. Established Michigan law allows for up to a 16% difference between districts. That could of course be changed by a new standard set by the Michigan Supreme Court.

The Wayne County Charter wisely provided some solid guidelines for drawing the district boundaries for County Commissioners. True, almost all of Wayne County is Democratic. So, drawing boundaries did not have the potential consequences that the Michigan Boundary Commissioners will have to face. But, the County Charter provides that each district must be as square as possible, and must respect the boundaries of existing cities, village and townships as much as possible. Once again, these are the boundaries to which most voters connect and affiliate.
I'm adding these comments because I have seen no practical proposals being made as to how this new Commission will do it's job.