After a lengthy legal battle, a proposal to hand over the power to draw voting district lines in Michigan from politicians to a state citizens commission will go before voters in November.
The initiative, put forward by the group Voters Not Politicians, aims to end gerrymandering in Michigan by having this commission replace the current system, in which the state political party in power generally controls the process. Over the last decade, that party has been Republicans.
Opponents of the proposal, who are often Republicans, argue the commission would give power to unelected commissioners and is really an effort to gerrymander in favor of Democrats. Supporters of the proposal, often Democrats, argue the commission would be free of partisan influence and more accountable to the public than the current process.
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Bridge reviewed the proposal and consulted Jeff Grynaviski, a professor of political science at Wayne State University and Jim Lancaster, chief legal counsel for Voters Not Politicians, to determine how the commission is intended to function if enacted.
Here are seven things you need to know about the proposal:
Who’s on the commission
The commission would be made up of 13 eligible voters who apply to become a part of the commission and who self-identify with one of the state’s two major political parties or are unaffiliated with either party. The proposal references “major parties” to allow for flexibility over time, but we’ll refer to them here as Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Four of the selected commissioners would be Republicans, four would be Democrats and five would be independents. Their terms would expire after their duties are complete for the census cycle.
If someone is chosen for the commission, they can’t hold elected office for five years after they’re appointed.
Who is excluded from serving on the commission
The proposal is written to exclude some people who have significant political interests or connections from serving on the commission. Specifically, that includes:
- 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
If the person has not been any of these for six years, they could serve on the commission.
How commissioners are chosen
Applications would open at the beginning of the year of every decennial census (i.e. 2020, 2030, etc.) and close halfway through the year. The proposal does not describe what the application would entail. If passed this November, the first commission maps would likely be used in 2022.
Any citizen (except those excluded) could apply to be on the commision. They’d be required to self-identify under oath whether they affiliate with one of the major political parties or as an independent.
The Secretary of State would also send out applications to random citizens until there’s at least 30 Democrats, 30 Republicans and 40 independents who have applied.
Then, it gets mathy.
The Secretary of State’s office would randomly select 60 Democratic applicants, 60 Republican applicants and 80 independent applicants using statistical weighting methods to “mirror the geographic and demographic makeup of the state.” If fewer apply, the pool would be proportionally populated from those who did apply.
State House and Senate leadership would review the applications and be allowed to collectively strike 20 applications from the pool of 200; Republican and Democratic leaders of both bodies could each choose five people they’d like to strike from the pool. Then the Secretary of State would randomly choose four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents from the remaining 180 applications. Those 13 would serve as the commission.
How the commission’s work is paid for
The commission would be allowed to hire any technical and legal services it thinks is necessary to complete its task (the proposal mentions hiring nonpartisan experts, conducting hearings and maintaining records as some of those expenses).
The legislature would appropriate funding for the commission in the year before the census, which couldn’t be lower than 25 percent of what it appropriates to the Secretary of State’s office. So if they were funding the commission this year, it would get at least $4.6 million — that’s a quarter of the Secretary of State’s $18.5 million budget.
The funding would continue every year the commission is actively operating (so, for example, it might take a year to draw and approve maps but several more to defend them in court.) Commissioners would report expenditures, undergo an annual audit and return any unused money at the end of the year.
The commissioners would each be paid at least a quarter of the governor’s salary. If it were this year, that would be $39,825. (That comes to just over $500,000 for the 13 members.)
How they’d draw the lines
Before drawing the lines, the commission would be required to hold at least 10 public hearings across the state where it would consider proposed redistricting plans from the public. It would also accept feedback submitted online.
Commissioners would draft at least one plan for the state’s House and Senate districts and U.S. congressional districts in Michigan. They would be allowed to hire statisticians and other nonpartisan experts to help advise them, if they’d like.
Each commissioner can propose one plan for each type of district, so feasibly there could be 13 different House, Senate and congressional maps. They’d be required to also provide all supporting data they used to determine the lines.
The commission would be required to “conduct all of its business at open meetings.” Commissioners couldn’t talk about redistricting outside of the meetings unless it’s in writing with members of the public, and they (and any staff or consultants) wouldn’t be allowed to accept gifts worth more than $20.
They would be required to consider a number of criteria in drawing the maps weighted by priority.
In order of importance, the districts should:
- Have equal population and comply with the Voting Rights Act.
- Be geographically contiguous.
- Reflect the state’s diversity and “communities of interest.”
- Not give a disproportionate advantage to any political party.
- Not favor or disfavor an incumbent.
- Reflect county, city and township boundaries.
- Be compact.
The “communities of interest” weight is one aspect of the VNP proposal that critics have pushed back on, arguing that it is an arbitrary moniker that would be used to skew maps based on partisan preference.
Grynaviski, of Wayne State, said the “communities of interest” standard is one that “people who draw maps would be comfortable with.”
“When we talk about (communities of interest) what we mean is other widely recognized political jurisdictions on a map,” he said. “Further north, it might be county lines. In Oakland and Wayne counties, it might be municipal boundaries.”
The National Conference of State Legislatures describes 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.”
How the lines would be approved
After coming up with the proposed maps, there would be 45 days for the public to comment on the plans and five public hearings throughout the state to get public input. Then the commission would vote on those maps to narrow it down to three — one for the state House, Senate and U.S. congressional districts, then vote to finalize it.
For a plan to be approved, it has to get a majority vote that includes at least two Democrats, two Republicans and two independents. If no plan can get that, they’d use a type of ranked-choice voting system.
The map would need to be approved by the beginning of November the year after the census.
How people could challenge the districts once they’re drawn
The commission would be able to defend its maps in court using state funding.
The proposal says the Michigan Supreme Court could review challenges to the maps. If it decides the map is not constitutional, the commission would be required to draw a new version of it that fits the requirements. No other body would be allowed to draw eligible maps except the commission.
Grynaviski said the maps would also be able to be reviewed by federal courts with the same process that’s been used for nearly 60 years.