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Michigan voters will decide this November whether the state needs an independent commission to draw legislative districts, following a Michigan Supreme Court decision late Tuesday allowing the measure to stay on the ballot.
In a 4-3 decision, Michigan’s highest court ruled that the Voters Not Politicians ballot proposal was appropriate to go before voters. Challengers to the initiative had argued the measure was too broad and could only be enacted by constitutional convention.
The two justices nominated or appointed by Democrats were joined by two justices appointed or nominated by Republicans to uphold a Michigan Court of Appeals ruling allowing the ballot measure to go forward. Voting to take the proposal off the ballot were three Republican-backed justices on the GOP-dominated court.
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The partisan makeup of the state Supreme Court was considered a possible issue because the proposal has been largely opposed by Republican power brokers in the state while favored by many Democrats.
“We are stewards of the people and must faithfully abide by the decision they make through the laws they adopt,” David Viviano, a Republican-backed justice, wrote in the majority opinion.
“We accomplish this by adhering to the plain meaning of the text of those laws. Here that approach leads us to conclude that a voter-initiated amendment… is permissible if it does not significantly alter or abolish the form or structure of our government, making it tantamount to creating a new constitution. VNP’s proposal surpasses these hurdles and is a permissible voter initiated amendment.”
Viviano was joined in the majority by fellow Republican Justice Elizabeth Clement and Democratic backed justices Richard Bernstein and Bridget Mary McCormack. In opposition were Republicans Kurtis Wilder, Brian Zahra and Chief Justice Stephen Markman.
The Supreme Court ruling is the end of the road for legal challenges to the ballot proposal, with opponents and supporters now expected to turn to a heated and expensive campaign pitched at Michigan voters leading up to the November election.
Currently, Michigan legislators redraw district lines every 10 years following the U.S. Census, with the most recent boundaries drawn by Republican consultants in 2011. Whichever party is in power during that process can greatly influence how those lines are drawn, which has led to accusations of partisan gerrymandering.
If approved by voters in November, the ballot initiative would change the system to create an independent, 13-person board of citizens responsible for drawing the lines with the help of consultants including computer experts, and subject to public hearings. The commission would be composed of registered Michigan voters and include four members who identify as Democrat, four who identify as Republican and five members who don’t identity as belonging to either major party.
The high-stakes case was being watched closely by political parties and activists in Michigan and across the nation. Democrats in Michigan tend to back redistricting reform, noting that statewide voting totals in recent elections have been relatively equal between Democrats and Republicans, and yet in state House and, particularly, Senate races, the GOP has reaped huge electoral advantages.
Bridge wrote about recently emerged emails written by Republican consultants and a then-Michigan Chamber executive in 2011 which indicated that nakedly partisan decisions were being made in the drawing of congressional districts to favor Republicans.
Republicans, in turn, have raised skepticism about Voters Not Politicians’ proposal, which they suggest is a veiled effort to shift political power to Democrats in drawing boundary lines.
The petition was challenged by Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, which contends the Voters Not Politicians proposal would too broadly change the state constitution and doesn’t properly specify those changes in its petition language. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Attorney General Bill Schuette, the GOP frontrunner for governor in November, also oppose the ballot proposal.
The chamber has heavily financed the legal challenged to the ballot measure as well as the campaigns of Republican-backed candidates for the Supreme Court.