Less than a month ago, more than 60 percent of Michiganders approved a new system for redistricting that intentionally boxed out the influence of the legislature.
Now, under a new bill passed out of state Senate committee Tuesday, the new redistricting commission and incoming Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson may have some direction from the lame-duck, Republican-led legislature.
A bill, introduced by Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, seeks to define one of the most-criticized elements of the new redistricting system: How the state will determine commission applicants’ political party affiliation.
The guidelines are crucial for a citizens commission that is designed to give equal voice to Democrats and Republicans alike, along with citizens from neither major party.
A person who “adheres to or acts to further the purposes or objectives of (a) party” would be considered affiliated with that party under the legislation. “An expression of sympathy” for a party or its objectives wouldn’t be enough on its own. People would be “conclusively” affiliated with a party if they gave money to it in the last six years.
The constitutional amendment passed by voters in November already specifies that lying about party affiliation on an application could be punished as perjury, but the Pavlov bill also outlines a punishment — a civil fine of $500.
Pavlov said his bill is intended to create “additional safeguards to protect the integrity of the independent redistricting commission” and does not regulate or amend the constitutional amendment itself.
The commission “was always designed to try to remain nonpartisan,” Pavlov said, adding that the bill would simply build in additional precautions. “We want to remove any doubts so the voters have confidence in what they voted for.”
The constitutional amendment dramatically changes the state’s redistricting system. Before, the majority party in the legislature drew state and congressional voting district lines in Michigan, largely behind closed doors (and often with partisan intent). As Bridge has also reported, Michigan has one of the most gerrymandered legislative maps in the nation.
Under the constitutional amendment passed in November, a newly created citizens commission of four Republicans, four Democrats and five people unaffiliated with either major party will draw the maps with public input following the next redistricting cycle, following the 2020 U.S. Census.
Members of Voters Not Politicians, the group behind the proposal that created the new redistricting commission, said Tuesday they are outraged by Pavlov’s proposal. They say the bill is a violation of the will of the people by placing constraints on a commission that is designed to be “self-executing” by making choices without direction from partisan legislators.
“This bill is unconstitutional on its face, it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and it’s a blatant, politically-motivated effort,” said Nancy Wang, board president of Voters Not Politicians, told members of the Senate Government Operations Tuesday. Six others spoke in opposition to the bill during the hearing; no one besides Pavlov spoke in support.
Michael Li, an expert in redistricting from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School, said that while he believes the legislature is within its rights to legislate some things related to the commission, the bill is “troubling.”
Because the commission applications likely won’t be available until the end of 2019, there’s plenty of time for rules to be created with ample public input, he said. “The fact that they’re trying to rush it through suggests that there’s something untoward about it. That’s the disturbing part of it.”
Arnold Weinfeld, Interim Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, said the bill may be good policy, but “it ought to be done in an intentional and deliberative manner that a lame-duck legislature really doesn’t provide for.”
The legislature’s effort to “keep people from lying about their affiliation” on the commission is a good thing, said Tony Daunt, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, which opposed Proposal 2 during the 2018 election.
“I think people who supported this or opposed it should be supportive of a measure that enhances transparency and the accountability of the people who serve on the commission.”
The bill will move to the Senate floor next, where it must be approved before it can move to a House committee, the House floor or Gov. Rick Snyder's desk.