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5 things to know about the ballot proposal to end gerrymandering in Michigan

Michigan's 14th congressional district
Public Domain
Michigan's oddly-shaped 14th congressional district, currently represented by Brenda Lawrence, is one example of political gerrymandering.

Update, November 7, 2018:

Michiganders passed Proposal 2 on November 6, drastically changing the way districts are drawn in the state. Read our article about what the proposal will do below.

Original post:

A proposal that seeks to end gerrymandering in the state will be on the ballot this November.

The Board of State Canvassers voted to add the question from the group Voters Not Politicians on June 20.

But the question’s progress to the ballot was stalled by a legal challenge that has been rejected by the Michigan Court of Appeals, and now the Michigan Supreme Court

(Listen above to hear Eric Lupher, President of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, describe the pros and cons of an independent commission, and answer questions about the cost of the redistricting process in an interview with Stateside on October 17, 2018.)
The proposal is over six pages long, and state election officials have said it is one of the most complex proposals they’ve ever seen.

Which makes sense, since the rules governing the drawing of congressional and statewide legislative districts is complex.

Michigan Radio’s Zoe Clark explains gerrymandering this way:

"The U.S. has a census every 10 years. It's part of the Constitution. And in part it's to help apportion the country's 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Gerrymandering is the idea of drawing those political maps of the 435 seats for political advantage. If you draw the maps, you try to make sure your voters are in the majority in each district. Or you lump together your opposing voters so that their votes just don't go as far.”

And if you prefer video, you can watch this TED-Ed video:

Michigan is cited as one of the most gerrymandered states in the U.S.

In 2016, Democrats won over half of the votes for state House in 2016, but Republicans won most of the seats. (Guess which party redrew the district lines in 2010?)

So this ballot proposal seeks to end gerrymandering in Michigan. But the solution, like the problem, is complicated. 

Luckily, Michigan Radio read through all the legal jargon so you don't have to - unless you really want to, in which case you can do so here.

Here are five takeaways from the proposal:

1. It amends the Michigan Constitution

While the U.S. Constitution has rules for when reapportionment happens, the Michigan Constitution outlines how it happens.

Currently, Michigan is one of 28 states where its legislature is in charge of redistricting. Of course, the problem is that when one party is in charge of the legislature, the districts are often redrawn to favor that party.

But to take away the legislature’s redistricting authority, the state constitution needs to be amended via a ballot initiative.

In its lawsuit challenging whether the proposal can be placed on the November ballot, a group backed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce argued the constitutional amendment is too broad and proposes a general revision that can only be considered at a constitutional convention.

But in a 4-3 decision July 31, the state Supreme Court rejected that argument.

2. It establishes an Independent Citizen’s Redistricting Commission

In order to end the gerrymandering that occurs under the legislature, Voters Not Politicians wants a nonpartisan commission to be in charge of redrawing district lines.

The Commission will be made up of 13 independent citizens, and would meet every 10 years after the federal census to determine state and congressional districts that are politically competitive.

The 13 members would include four Republican-affiliated, four Democratic-affiliated, and five independent members.

Twelve states maintain an independent commission to determine redistricting, but the only state with a system similar to this ballot proposal is California, which established an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission of its own in 2008.

3. The Secretary of State will essentially oversee the Commission

Although the Commission will be independent and nonpartisan, the Secretary of State will be charged with making sure it runs effectively, including choosing qualified applicants at random and enacting the Commission’s redistricting decisions.

The Commission will be made up of 13 independent citizens, and would meet every ten years after the federal census to determine legislative and congressional districts that are politically competitive.

The process of forming an ideologically balanced commission is really where the proposal gets complicated, since the randomization of applicants must be statistically sound. But the process does factor in various indicators to ensure the Commission mirrors the geographic and demographic makeup of the state.

4. You might be asked to be on the Commission

Not only will the Secretary of State make the applications easily available, they will also be sent at random to 10,000 registered voters.

But not everyone can join the Commission. There will be guidelines of who is eligible to apply.

The goal of these rules is to ensure that members remain nonpartisan and that they not have the opportunity to gain politically from being a Commissioner.

According to the proposal, each member must:

  • be registered and eligible to vote in the state of Michigan.
  • not currently or in the past six years have been a declared candidate or elected official of any federal, state, or local office; an officer or member of the governing body of a federal, state, or local political party; a paid consultant of any elected official, political candidate, or political action committee; an employee of the state legislature; or a registered lobbyist.
  • not be a parent, stepparent, child, stepchild, or spouse to anyone specified in the above point.

The proposal also requires that anyone who serves on the Commission cannot hold a partisan elective office at any level in Michigan.
5. The Commission won’t be without help

A lot of resources will go towards helping the Commission form its final redistricting plan.

The proposal includes language that will allow members to hire staff and consultants, including legal representation, to assist with data collection and analysis.

And the public will have plenty of input. The proposal requires a minimum of 15 public hearings throughout the planning process.

But all that help won’t be cheap.

More from Paul Egan of the Detroit Free Press:

The commission is expected to cost at least an extra $5.5 million a year, based on a formula by which an amount equal to 25% of the current budget of the Michigan Secretary of State would be appropriated to support its work, said James Lancaster, a Lansing attorney representing Voters Not Politicians. The money to support the commission would be in addition to what the Secretary of State's Office now spends, he said.

You can learn more about gerrymandering in Michigan here, and more about the Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative here.

The original version of this article was posted in August 2017, when the petition was collecting signatures.

Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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