Here’s how Michigan’s redistricting commission would work

Voters Not Politicians is behind a ballot initiative to change the way the state draws voting district lines. Here, a volunteer carries a clipboard showing how district lines have been drawn in the past. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

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.

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:

  1. Have equal population and comply with the Voting Rights Act.
  2. Be geographically contiguous.
  3. Reflect the state’s diversity and “communities of interest.”
  4. Not give a disproportionate advantage to any political party.
  5. Not favor or disfavor an incumbent.
  6. Reflect county, city and township boundaries.
  7. 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.

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Comments

Arjay
Thu, 08/30/2018 - 9:13am

There is no such thing as a non-partisan person. Everyone to some degree has feelings. And what determines whether you are R, D, or I? Is it your past voting record (which should be private)? Is it whether you paid to support a candidate? Is it whether you have attended a rally, or a political convention, or a focus group with a candidate?

I could be classified as an independent non-partisan. I have never contributed to a candidate. I have voted in primaries on both sides of the ticket (not in the same election), and in the general election for different parties. If you asked me where my political leanings were, I would classify Attila the Hun as a flaming liberal. Could I pass the test to be an independent non-partisan person? Perhaps.

If the gerrymandering problem existed with only one party, then we would have a problem. But politics is like a pendulum at at some time in the future the other party, or perhaps a now unknown party will be in control.

A better approach, in my opinion, would be to define mathematical rules that would describe non-gerrymandered districts, such as each district must have the shortest border possible, and each district must be equal in size within a specified small deviation, and each district boundary must consist of no more than some small number of straight lines, and each district should follow a governmental unit’s boundary, etc. This would eliminate people from the equation and not depend on who is in power.

Robert Monroe
Thu, 08/30/2018 - 11:20am

If the initiative passes, and I hope it does, I urge Arjay to attend any or all of the public meetings and press for the mathematical approach, even provide examples. If all thirteen commissioners can submit a map, there is no reason to believe that such an approach could not find its way into serious review.

Bryan Watson
Thu, 08/30/2018 - 1:15pm

Math always operates on data - hence, an algorithm is a (logical) formula that produces data output when applied to data input. A "mathematical" approach would need to certify that the formula (rules) and the data input are above reproach.

Sanitizing the data input can/should be done today, even under the existing process. But it isn't. If it were, those emails the Republicans exchanged during the last redistricting process would make no sense: what is a "Republican" district or neighborhood, or a "Democratic" one? You only know because you included that fact in the data input to the process.

A mathematical process would still require validation of both the implementation of the rules and the sanity of the data in order to pass inspection. And that validation would still end up in a legal dispute by those who feel "harmed" by the outcome.

There is a sanitized, mathematical way to redistrict - one that depends on a simple "anyone can understand it" math function and exactly one piece of data. And it produces perfectly balanced (+/- 1) districts regardless of geography, population density, or other considerations. But that is unlikely to be considered as a solution for anyone.

MKL
Thu, 08/30/2018 - 3:13pm

To Arjay's comment: "What determines whether you are Republican, Democrat, or Independent?" As noted in the article, you would state under oath what party you affiliate with (if you wanted to be considered for the commission).

Matt
Fri, 08/31/2018 - 7:58am

Most/many people don't identify with a party even though that's the way they end up voting. Then they have very little understanding as to what they believe and how and why it fits into a political spectrum or resort to out and out deception or delusion as to their objectives. I recall a few years ago Nancy Pelosi extolling her moderate agenda which just goes to my point.

Lori Gilbo
Thu, 08/30/2018 - 9:18am

I appreciate the time and effort Bridge is putting into this explanation of gerrymandering. I continue to educate myself with this effort by Voters Not Politicians. Also, I am following the work of League of Women Voters for their Promote the Vote. Voters need to know that when they vote it counts!

Bryan Watson
Thu, 08/30/2018 - 9:18am

Thank you for this clarifying article.
Could you add to this, please, a description of how each of these 7 things differs from what was done in 2011-2012 and previous redistricting years?

Lennie
Thu, 08/30/2018 - 9:37am

It would seem that while the intent of this is valid, the methods as described are just a bit IMO over blown.

IMO using data generated from censuses, simply using a geographic point to draw from and ignoring input from either of the corrupt and worthless political parties and allow a software program to divide with zero regard to affiliation but some towards geography would be more effective.

IOW This proposal intends to do the right stuff but is loaded with trojan horses and fluff to appease the same old establishment.

IMO while this goes forward a recent decision allows the corrupt (IMO) policy of straight ticket voting to continue. Neither gerrymandering or that policy are in the best interest of the general public. Just lazy voters, incompetent clerks and politcal parties.

Matt
Fri, 08/31/2018 - 8:38pm

While you are at it, in eliminating straight party voting, eliminate party labels on the ballot! Show us where in the MI or US Constitution, a person's political party affiliation have anymore required place on the ballot than their religion, ethnic make up or blood type? This omission would the turn our legislative and executive branches and their partisan struggles on their heads, yet somehow no one brings it up. It might be suspected that better government is not what this is really about. To end your suspense, No where in our Mi or US constitution are political parties, let alone Democrats or Republicans even mentioned and yet this supposedly innocent amendment not only specifies them but cements them into the process. Really it is about one party's power vs. the other's and the joke is on us!

One More Opinio...
Thu, 08/30/2018 - 10:09am

There's no end to the opinions about how districts might redrawn. I'm sure I could come up with something better! But it's worth noting that this plan was hammered out after thirty-some public meetings around the state listening to people's opinions. It might not be perfect, but it's a whole lot better than leaving it up to politicians who happen to be in power and draw the boundaries in really screwy ways to stay in power. I for one (IFO), will vote for it (Imagine smiley face here.)

Kate W.
Thu, 08/30/2018 - 10:46am

There are a lot of steps in this proposed process, but it does seem like a good start.

JH
Thu, 08/30/2018 - 1:48pm

The gerrymandering is ridiculous, but I consider it an election consequence. This proposal seems like an extremely complicated process that essentially puts the power into the hands of some non-elected "independents".

I like the idea of a mathematical rules to map districts since that would be completely independent of partisanship. There could still be some partisan manipulation, but I think it'd be an improvement without adding a complicated non-elected bureaucracy.

duane
Fri, 08/31/2018 - 2:27pm

JH,
If there has been no demonstration of material harm to the State or that there will been no material improvement to the State, then you only care about the idea, no matter if the dollar cost would rise and the accountability of those drawing the lines would diminish [currently the drawers can be voted out, it appears the proposed structure would simply recreate the group each 10 years]?
Have you heard any of those promoting this proposal describe any effort to consider the unintended consequences of the proposal, might that not that influence the numbers?
At best this is simply change because it can be done, at worst it is a group out of power not willing to change to regain power. History shows that 'gerrymandering' does not prevent the Party in the majority from loosing that majority, that has happened to both Parties over the history of Michigan elections.
It is your choice, but does reality matter or rationale matter more, change for change sack justify creating an add on function needed only once every ten years [do you doubt that a new job will be created to maintain the new scheme for the 9 years not in use?

Erwin Haas
Fri, 08/31/2018 - 9:59am

Hard to see how "the two major parties" squares with the inclusion of the Libertarian Party as a major party as defined by the SOS.
Am I to be prevented from being a non partisan member of the 13 despite running as a Libertarian when they were a minor party? Or will my running for MI Senate 26 for what is defined as a major party in 2018 be the defining backball (to use the original Athenian term)?
I can see where the apparent language and interpretation will be endlessly frustrated by the "major" party gibberish.
My best contribution is well known; the US constitution specifies that the state legislature draw the lines and specify how elections are run. No matter who draws the lines, it will be partisan and you may as well allow the victors to screw the losers as is their duty under our Constitution.
This initiative distracts responsibility from where it belongs and has been drawn up using flawed reference points that will condemn it to 10 years of legal wrangling. In the meantime the state legislators or the courts will be able to jerk our politics around to no one's benefit.

duane
Fri, 08/31/2018 - 2:14pm

If Bridge were interested in an informed electorate it would seem they also would also describe the current system including such things as current cost over and above those including this task in their job descriptions, drawing district lines [is the proposed $500,000 for the new commissioners an addition to current salaries or does it replace those salaried, is there additional staffing and costs for the new commission selection process, etc.]. If the new scheme costs more it would seem a bias in support of the proposal is creeping into this article [not possible since Mr. Bebow formally decried any such suggestion in an article on Bridge about Bridge].
It would seem if Bridge were striving for an informed public they would describe the current process side by side with the proposal so readers could see and weigh the two. I presume after all the articles against the current system the readers do need to know the actual process. Could this omission be seen as a bias?
The proposal [‘No other body would be allowed to draw eligible maps except the commission.’] seems to have iron clad limits on who draws the boundaries. I wonder if people would be interested in how the current system works manages court challenges to the proposed district lines.
Sometimes I wonder about Bridge’s commitment to a better informed reader, especially when it involves a political choice, when as they point out it has been over a decade since Democrats held the majority.

Mark
Sat, 09/01/2018 - 4:50am

This proposal is too complicated for an average citizen to put forth an effort to serve on the commission. The public hearings would turn into chaos and only attended by partisan thugs that has been occurring by Liberal activists resulting in name calling and threats to the commissioners. Vote NO. Keep gerrymandering, it is a legislative responsibility.

Barb
Mon, 09/10/2018 - 10:24pm

Would someone please provide an analysis of how, and how well (or poorly) the independent redistricting commissions work in the six states that already have them?