A quarter-million people have already signed petitions to put a proposal on the 2018 ballot intended to end partisan gerrymandering in Michigan.
But the fate of the effort to create an independent commission to draw political district boundaries may rest with just seven people – the justices of the Michigan Supreme Court.
Veteran GOP attorney Bob LaBrant said he expects those opposed to creating an independent commission, which includes the Michigan Republican Party, will seek to challenge the ballot initiative in court; in essence, by trying to kill it before 2018 voters get a chance to say yes or no. Such a case likely would end up in front of the Michigan Supreme Court, where justices officially are nonpartisan, but are nominated by Republican and Democratic state conventions. Republicans hold a 5-2 majority on the high court.
The proposed ballot language would change the Michigan Constitution to take the power to draw political boundaries away from the Legislature and give that power to a commission made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and five people unaffiliated with either party. For new district boundaries to be accepted, the majority of the 13 commission members must vote for it, including at least two Republicans and two Democrats and two unaffiliated members.
You can read the proposed changes to the Constitution here.
Boundaries for state House and Senate districts and U.S. Congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years after each U.S. Census. In Michigan as in the majority of states politicians are currently in charge of redrawing those maps. The party in charge of the Legislature and the governor’s office can, and typically do, draw maps that help their party win more seats in the Legislature and Congress. That tactic, which typically involves packing minority party voters into as few districts as possible, is called gerrymandering.
By one standard, Michigan has some of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation.
For example, in 2016 Michigan voters actually cast more ballots overall for Democratic candidates for the state legislature than Republican candidates, yet Republicans won 63 of 110 seats.
Voters Not Politicians was formed this year in Michigan to try to make redistricting in the state less partisan, depending on which party is in power, by creating an independent redistricting commission, similar to commissions that exist in eight states.
A volunteer army of about 3,000 Michigan residents have collected more than 250,000 signatures of registered voters in two months, according to Katie Fahey, president of Voters Not Politicians. The group needs to collect about 316,000 valid signatures by early February.
“We’ve had people drive an hour to get to a location where they know a volunteer is collecting signatures,” Fahey said. “We’ve had lines of people waiting to sign.”
Because some signatures typically are thrown out, the group needs to collect perhaps 100,000 more than the minimum to be safe. Still, Fahey and LaBrant agree the effort is on pace to reach its goal, even with all volunteer workers. Typically, backers of ballot proposals resort to hiring signature gatherers to help collect names.
“I suspect they will collect enough signatures to make it onto the ballot,” LaBrant said.
LaBrant, who is involved in GOP efforts to stop the ballot proposal, admits that the anti-establishment, drain-the-swamp mood of the electorate could make a proposal that takes power away from politicians seem attractive to voters.
While saying he doesn’t “want to give away my strategy,” LaBrant said he believes the proposal could be struck down by courts on the basis that it “isn’t a change in the (state) Constitution,” but a “general revision of the Constitution that would require a Constitutional Convention.” In essence, a ballot proposal can only tweak a specific section of the Constitution, not make wholesale changes over broad areas.
LaBrant pointed to a successful court effort he led to strike down the “Reform Michigan Government Now” ballot proposal in 2008, a proposal that would have radically reformed state government in areas ranging from trimming the number of Supreme Court justices to redistricting. That proposal enjoyed 70 percent support among the public, but was struck down in court based on the same constitutional argument LaBrant is proposing with the current petition drive to change how legislative districts are drawn. LaBrant called defeat of Reform Michigan Government Now “the most satisfying victory of my career.”
"The RMGN initiative petition is overarching, of a reach and expanse never before seen of any constitutional initiative in Michigan's long history," a unanimous Michigan Court of Appeals ruled at the time. "It proposes fundamentally to redesign the very framework of the Michigan Constitution of 1963."
For now Fahey is focused on the battle in front of her, collecting signatures. “The important thing is that the people of Michigan are driving the campaign,” Fahey said. “Just let the people decide for themselves whether they want to vote on this issue.”