California’s redistricting commission has some free advice for Michigan

California took redistricting away from politicians and let a group of citizens draw political boundaries, and despite dire warnings, the state hasn’t fallen into the Pacific yet.

Nov. 7 update: One woman’s Facebook post leads to Michigan vote against gerrymandering
Related: Here’s how Michigan’s redistricting commission would work

ORANGE, Calif. – Ten years ago, California was where Michigan is now.  

A proposal to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians and put a citizen commission in charge of redrawing political boundaries was on its way to the November ballot. The proposal was opposed by the party in power. There were lawsuits that threatened to derail the initiative before it reached voters.

In Michigan, the issue is headed to the state Supreme Court on Wednesday, when the panel will hear arguments about whether the “Voters Not Politicians” proposal will be on the ballot.

Bridge Magazine sat down recently with three members of the 14-member California Redistricting Commission to talk about lessons they’ve learned over the past decade, and advice they’d offer Michigan.

The discussion with Jodie Filkins Webber, Peter Yao and Gil Ontai, all Republicans, was edited for length and clarity.

Bridge: The ballot proposal in Michigan to take redistricting away from the Legislature and give it to a citizen commission is getting a lot of opposition. Did that happen in California?

Jodie Filkins Webber

Ontai: From the start, both Republicans and Democrats were not terribly overjoyed. They were forced to give up this responsibility. So this alien body entered the formula. They weren’t exactly enthusiastic about us being successful.

Yao: The Legislature was against us to begin with, so they weren’t necessarily friendly to us as far as budgeting money.

Filkins Webber: At first, we had no way to access money to buy pencils.

Bridge: Do you face the same resistance today from politicians?

All three: Absolutely!

Yao: We didn’t make a single friend in the Legislature. They’re still trying to make this process go away.

Peter Yao

Bridge: The political impact was fairly muted. There are more competitive races than before the citizens group took over, and more competitive races than Michigan.  But the partisan makeup of the state Assembly didn’t change much. If anything, the Democrat-controlled Assembly has an even higher percentage of Democrats now, even though it was the Dems who complained the loudest.

Yao: We didn’t consider partisan makeup when we drew the maps. That wasn’t a factor.

Filkins Webber: There were other factors beyond the redistricting commission. The demographics of the state changed. We went to a top-two primary (where all candidates run in the same primary and the top two face off in November, no matter what party they belong to). So it’s hard to separate out the impact of the commission.

Bridge: The California ballot proposition passed by less than 2 percent, so the public was split on whether it was a good idea. Eight years later, what does the public think?

Gil Ontai

Filkins Webber: Everywhere we go, people say ‘We love our district.’ I’ve gotten that a lot in Riverside County where I live, because this is the first time we’ve had a full congressional district in the county.

Ontai: There’s overwhelming public support. Even now, I have people telling me ‘I’m so glad you guys drew the lines because you guys were listening to us.’ To the extent that the public has rallied around the process, I think politicians have backed up a little. They’re still not totally behind us, but they get the sense the public is.

Bridge: One criticism by politicians of a citizen redistricting commission in Michigan is that citizens don’t have any training to do this.

Ontai: What makes legislators qualified to draw the lines?

Filkins Webber: Over the course of nearly 25 years, we had change in partisanship (in the state Legislature) 5  percent of the time. It was insane. That means your vote had no impact. Why is it better to have self-interested politicians, who have no greater knowledge of drawing the lines, who are going to continue to draw the lines in a manner to assure their election, than doing it in a manner that is transparent and encourages public participation?

Bridge: One of your mandates was to consider “communities of interest” when drawing political boundaries. Michigan’s proposal includes that, too, and it’s getting some pushback because it could mean just about anything. Can you give examples in which communities of interest drove decisions on district lines?

Filkins Webber: We have what may be the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam near here in Garden Grove. That is a community, and it didn’t have a (California state) Assembly district of its own until now (after the citizen’s commission drew lines)

Yao:  In Central California, the public source of water is important. In Napa Valley, grape growers wanted to be together (in the same political boundaries) because they have the same interests and they wanted to have one voice.

Ontai: In San Diego, fire is a big problem. Citizens were telling us we want to make sure we have representation who give our community a voice in where resources will come from to protect us from brush fires.

Yao: It’s important to know we didn’t create communities of interest if we didn’t hear from anybody. If it’s not there, we don’t give it consideration.

Bridge: The Michigan redistricting commission would include Republicans, Democrats and independents, just like California’s commission. Did your disagreements on maps break down along party lines?

Filkins Webber: I never witnessed anyone making decisions based on partisanship. I didn’t vote for the Congressional map, but I didn’t make that decision based on partisanship. We took a blind eye to all of it.

Ontai: My family has been registered Republicans since 1897, and politics did not come into my decision-making process.  Decisions were made completely on a ranking criteria.

Bridge: Any advice for Michigan?

Yao: It will cost more than you think. We had $3 million budgeted in the proposition. We’ve spent $10 million (almost all used defending lawsuits).

Filkins Webber: Commissioners need to serve 10 years. Lawsuits and questions continue.

Yao: If we weren’t there to defend it, no one would.

Ontai: For the Michigan voters, the most valuable lesson they can learn from the California experience is they need to create a commission that has integrity from day one, that the public is going to trust, and make it as transparent as possible. And I believe communities of interest is going to add the human dimension that is needed in the process. All the (map-making) software is not enough.

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Comments

Kevin Grand
Mon, 07/16/2018 - 9:33am

And this is exactly why the democrat party-backed Voters Not Politicians plan fails:

"For the Michigan voters, the most valuable lesson they can learn from the California experience is they need to create a commission that has integrity from day one, that the public is going to trust, and make it as transparent as possible. "

Not only have I yet to hear a rational argument regarding how they intend to choose an independent (the problem that I outlined in my first sentence), but a Michigan politician with any integrity is practically an oxymoron. The fact that the governor & legislature are exempt from FOIA should be proof of that right there.

Sure, there are a few exceptions.

But not in significant numbers.

George Moroz
Mon, 07/16/2018 - 11:04am

It's my understanding that under the proposal, politicians, current or former, would not be allowed to serve on the commission.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 07/16/2018 - 12:13pm

And that is part of the devil in the details which no one has the fortitude to ask..

Allegedly, they'll be split something like 4 republican, 4 democrat and 5 "independent". How the later will actually be determined is anyone's guess. VNP is actually naive enough to believe that a random drawing is all that is needed.

From their own website:

"The Secretary of State will mail applications to at least 10,000 randomly selected registered voters. In addition, any registered Michigan voter can apply to serve on the Commission. Applications may ask for things like name, address where registered to vote, basic demographic information, and political party affiliation.

From the qualified applicants, the Secretary of State’s office will randomly select 200 finalists: 60 Republicans, 60 Democrats, and 80 who are not affiliated with those parties. These applicants will be selected from demographic and geographic categories so that when the 200 finalists are drawn randomly, they will reflect the geographic and demographic makeup of Michigan. The majority and minority leaders in the Michigan House and Senate will be able to strike up to 5 applications each.

The Secretary of State will then randomly select the final Commission members from the remaining pool of applicants."

https://www.votersnotpoliticians.com/faq

But since the Michigan Legislature will ultimately be writing the final details, what VNP says will happen, does not mean will make it into the final version. Everything is essentially still up in the air.

If anyone has any doubts about this, I would recommend reading up on the outcome of the 2008 vote for Proposal 1.

Joe Spaulding
Mon, 07/16/2018 - 11:55am

Right now, the maps are drawn entirely by politicians. No one else gets a say. So, ballot proposal to end gerrymandering in Michigan only, according to you, has a risk of increasing the Integrity of the process, because it puts it in the hands of people who are not politicians. You know, the ones you You know, the ones you admit have a shot of having any integrity.

But, let's not forget the most important part of the quote we mentioned, transparency. Right now, as you said the legislature is exempt from FOIA and the Open Meetings Act. The proposal mandates that all redistricting meetings are open to the public. The system cannot get less transparent than the status quo, or more transparent then the proposal brought to the ballot by Voters Not Politicians and 425,000 Michiganders.

Diana Wallis
Mon, 07/16/2018 - 12:58pm

Kevin Grand: To be an informed voter on this issue, please go to VotersNotPoliticians.com. It is a non-partisan, grassroots organization. To be non-partisan means the members, no matter their personal political beliefs, are choosing to leave partisanship out of their activities on behalf of the greater good. Perhaps, when you understand the proposal better, you'll want to volunteer to help us educate voters--you can sign up online for that.

The process of choosing the commission is spelled out very carefully in the ballot proposal. It seems complicated because there are numerous steps--but the steps are specified very clearly. The goal is to achieve a randomly selected commission that cannot be manipulated by the political parties. There will be 4 Republicans, 4 Democrats, and 5 "independents"--people not aligned with either party. The process will be out in the open; public meetings will give opportunity for comment and discussion before maps are finalized, rather than the current process that takes place completely out of the public eye, which allows the decision makers to benefit themselves and their partisan agenda.

Join us! Help create the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission--impartial, transparent, fair.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 07/16/2018 - 3:59pm

Ms. Wallis,

I have gone to your website (I even knew exactly where to go to get the portion I linked above).

The major problem with your premise is that you are asking for the impossible for it to really work as promised, vis-à-vis how do you unquestionably determine if someone is truly independent?

Random drawing?

Anyone can claim a party (or no party) affiliation.

That is one of the interesting things about the gubernatorial races during the past few years here in Michigan. People were leery of Rick Snyder when he first ran b/c they felt that he wasn't a republican.

This time around, people feel the same about Shri Thanedar being a democrat.

It's no huge secret that most people running for political office will say what they think people want to hear in order to get elected. That's why political campaigns spend serious $$$ in order to "craft their message to the voters".

Why should we expect any different from people signing up to be on the redistricting commission?

The fundamental concept I agree with 100%. Political parties have no basis selecting voting districts here in Michigan.

But unless you have a way to ascertain 100% that they will not after this proposal passes, you're literally back back at square one.

AS
Tue, 07/17/2018 - 10:57pm

So if Voters Not Politicians can't 100% guarantee that their proposal will work exactly as intended, we should stick with the system we have, which we know does work exactly as intended - 100% guaranteed to keep the current politicians in power? I'd rather take any chance on a system better than that. And in addition to the open meetings, the proposal also states that at least two people from each of the three groups have to agree on a map. And there will be a random drawing of the applicants. I suppose it's possible for one party to completely swamp the applicant pool with partisans who are willing to lie about their political affiliation, but it seems unlikely.

Stephen C Brown
Wed, 08/01/2018 - 11:35am

Kevin Grand: You're seeking a certainty which is never possible in human affairs! This proposal was crafted as a best effort, that has the best probability of success in non-partisanship. More than a third of registered voters self-identify as independents, and the SOS has records of who voted in the primaries, so that could serve as a check. By the way, primary elections are closed to "independents" under current law, so a form of rank-choice voting would be another best reform to open up the political process to all citizens.

Matt
Tue, 07/17/2018 - 8:26am

I'd have more confidence in this commission if the members were randomly chosen by drawing from driver's license holders. A bunch of people with as little political knowledge as possible! As soon as you begin to recognize one community's interests which this proposed to consider means others are necessarily excluded and things go out of wack no matter what the intentions, this commission is guaranteed to drift over time to a more partisan direction . Further, experience is that people who claim to be independents are typically either disinterested and ignorant and wouldn't have the slightest interest in pushing to serve on such a commission or they are liars.

Stanley Gay
Wed, 10/31/2018 - 4:15pm

Diana Wallis I TOTALLY AGREE with your Comments and Clarification, may GOD ALMIGHTY BLESS You ABUNDANTLY..... THANKS !!!!!

Mary Fox
Tue, 07/17/2018 - 9:04am

Here is who I absolutely do not trust. Republicans. THEY created the most gerrymandered elections of my lifetime.

Mary Fox
Tue, 07/17/2018 - 9:05am

Here is who I absolutely do not trust. Republicans. THEY created the most gerrymandered elections of my lifetime.

Paul Jordan
Mon, 07/16/2018 - 12:02pm

It sounds to me like a great improvement over the current system.

Barry Visel
Wed, 07/18/2018 - 9:27am

What’s the difference between “communities if interest” and gerrymandering? As soon as you readjust the line to accommodate one interest group over the whole you have gerrymandering.

Denise Knapp
Sat, 07/28/2018 - 1:15pm

They are not given more power than another group, that's the point. They're given EQUAL power. Without a voice, people are powerless.

And I quote:
Bridge: One of your mandates was to consider “communities of interest” when drawing political boundaries. Michigan’s proposal includes that, too, and it’s getting some pushback because it could mean just about anything. Can you give examples in which communities of interest drove decisions on district lines?

Filkins Webber: We have what may be the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam near here in Garden Grove. That is a community, and it didn’t have a (California state) Assembly district of its own until now (after the citizen’s commission drew lines)

Yao: In Central California, the public source of water is important. In Napa Valley, grape growers wanted to be together (in the same political boundaries) because they have the same interests and they wanted to have one voice.

Ontai: In San Diego, fire is a big problem. Citizens were telling us we want to make sure we have representation who give our community a voice in where resources will come from to protect us from brush fires.

Yao: It’s important to know we didn’t create communities of interest if we didn’t hear from anybody. If it’s not there, we don’t give it consideration.

I guess I don't understand how you don't understand this.

Zeke
Thu, 10/11/2018 - 12:13pm

Well people, the one thing we can agree with is the old districting decisions didn't have any fairness for voters