This story was updated Aug. 30 to include the final ballot wording for the Voters Not Politicians proposal and details of the Board of State Canvassers meeting.
Language for an initiative that would change the way Michigan draws voting district lines was approved this week, representing a middle ground to the competing drafts of the proposal’s opponents and supporters.
The language is particularly important for the hefty, eight-page redistricting proposal, that survived a fraught legal battle over whether it is too sweeping and complex for the November ballot. The wording, crafted by the Bureau of Elections, attempts to distill the Voters Not Politicians proposal down to just the 100 words voters will see on election day.
“I think the language in this case might be hugely significant because ordinary voters don’t know a lot about these ballot propositions,” said Jeff Grynaviski, a professor of political science at Wayne State University. “They’re in the category of things that appear on the ballot that I’d call ‘low information decisions.’”
A PROPOSED CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT TO ESTABLISH A COMMISSION OF CITIZENS WITH EXCLUSIVE AUTHORITY TO ADOPT DISTRICT BOUNDARIES FOR THE MICHIGAN SENATE, MICHIGAN HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES AND U.S. CONGRESS, EVERY 10 YEARS
This proposed constitutional amendment would:
- Create a commission of 13 registered voters randomly selected by the Secretary of State:
- 4 each who self-identify as affiliated with the 2 major political parties; and
- 5 who self-identify as unaffiliated with major political parties.
- Prohibit partisan officeholders and candidates, their employees, certain relatives, and lobbyists from serving as commissioners.
- Establish new redistricting criteria including geographically compact and contiguous districts of equal population, reflecting Michigan’s diverse population and communities of interest. Districts shall not provide disproportionate advantage to political parties or candidates.
- Require an appropriation of funds for commission operations and commissioner compensation.
Should this proposal be adopted?
[ ] YES
[ ] NO
The Board of State Canvassers reviewed and voted on the language during a meeting in Lansing Thursday after taking public comment. The final language will be identical to what Elections Director Sally Williams proposed, with one addition: to describe it as a "commission of citizens" in the descriptive header. Two Republican and one Democratic member of the board voted to approve it, while one Democratic member voted against approving it, arguing that it leaves out important information about the proposal such as mention of the Voting Rights Act.
The language was approved after two hours of debate. Voters Not Politicians' lawyer and director sought to include mention of the commissions' transparency, public hearings and use of existing federal standards to protect minorities' vote. Opposition group Protect My Vote, represented by attorney Jason Hanselman, asked the state include note of the commission's cost and "ought to discuss the millions of people who are automatically disqualified" from serving on the commission.
Board members were divided along party lines — Republican board members favored approving the state's proposed language while Democratic board members favored many of the changes sought by Voters Not Politicians.
More Bridge redistricting coverage:
- Here’s how Michigan’s redistricting commission would work
- California’s redistricting commission has some free advice for Michigan
- Four takeaways from Michigan Supreme Court upholding redistricting ballot proposal
- Michigan Supreme Court votes 4-3 to keep anti-gerrymandering proposal on ballot
- Republican Supreme Court justices have ties to Michigan gerrymandering group
- Bill Schuette asks Michigan Supreme Court to reject redistricting proposal
"I think it's a minor win. I think unfortuantely there were still major aspects of how we intentionally crafted the language... that were left out," said Voters Not Politicians Director Katie Fahey, later adding, "I don't feel like we've been as treated as partisan as we have today."
Tony Daunt, executive director of Michigan Freedom Fund, opposes the initiative. He said Williams' language "came down the middle" of what both sides asked for, despite Democratic board members "really getting greedy and trying to push this thing from the proponents angle."
Both supporters and opponents of the VNP proposal submitted suggestions to state elections officials earlier this month for how the measure should be described on the November ticket.
The proposed wording from Voters Not Politicians focused on the broad strokes of what the proposal would do — take redistricting power from legislators and give it to an independent, politically balanced commission of citizens — in lieu of details about how the commission would work or be chosen.
Eric Doster, one of the attorneys who fought to keep the proposal off the ballot, submitted alternative language that describes the ballot measure as a “majority partisan commission” because eight of the 13 commissioners would be self-identified partisans (four from both major parties).
The state Williams and her staff considered the proposals when drafting the state-proposed language, which Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said is intended “to be a factual, concise and impartial statement of the amendment’s purpose.”
It primarily focuses on the mechanics of how the ballot initiative would work and eschews both Doster’s suggestion to use “majority partisan” and Voters Not Politicians’ suggestion that Williams use the word “independent” and give “substantial weight” to the purpose of the initiative, which is to prevent partisan gerrymandering.
Williams’ language mentions that an appropriation of state funds would be required, which VNP’s language avoided. But it also doesn’t include Doster’s proposal that the initiative would “mandate that a minimum of $5 million of taxpayer funds be spent” on it. The proposal would in fact require a quarter of the Secretary of State’s budget be allocated for the commission and doesn’t specify dollar figure; if appropriated this year it would receive $4.6 million.
“I’d probably be looking for a middle-road language too,” Grynaviski said of the elections office’s efforts. “To say (the redistricting commission) is independent isn’t quite right... It’s a bipartisan commission with a group of independents able to cast a tie-breaking vote. And ‘majority partisan’ isn’t right because it doesn’t really capture the intent of the law.”
Eric Lupher of the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan, which has researched the level of partisan gerrymandering in the state, said that this will be the first time Sally Williams has done this but that traditionally the state does “a pretty good job of coming up with fair and even-handed language that describes the (ballot) question.”
Opponents of the initiative say they fear it is a thinly-veiled attempt by Democrats to gerrymander in their favor with little accountability to the public and legislators. Proponents counter that the proposal is a transparency-focused method for remedying the state’s existing gerrymandered districts, which were drawn by Republicans in 2011 with the financial backing of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and others.