Michigan voters could find themselves with the short end of the stick – once again – when it comes to breaking free of the current gerrymandering system that allows politicians in Lansing to basically determine who will hold the elective offices in the state legislature and Congress every 10 years.
Under the current system, following the federal census each decade, the political party in power ends up determining the shape of districts for the state House and Senate and for the U.S. House. Voters attempted to remedy the situation when adopting the 1963 Michigan Constitution, which provided for a reapportionment commission. Unfortunately, every district plan ended up being contested by one political party or another so in a 1982 decision the Michigan Supreme Court abolished the reapportionment commission and allowed the legislature to resume drawing up political district boundaries once again.
There are about a half dozen states that have started to address the question of political gerrymandering through use of either bipartisan commissions or non-partisan legislative services to redraw districts after each census without consideration of past voting behavior and the current residence of incumbents who hold office.
Federal courts have generally only considered population count as its main concern, starting in 1964 when the ruling was handed down that political districts had to focus on equal population counts with only a minor variation allowance. Next, the federal courts have also focused on racial gerrymandering and the voting rights of minority populations. Largely ignored has been political gerrymandering – lest anyone forget, judges are also political animals with at least a whiff of party allegiance. There are a few cases working their way through the federal courts but the initial rulings do not suggest that judges are willing to wade into the muddy waters of gerrymandering.
I had thought there was some hope when a group called Voters Not Politicians appeared on the scene last year and conducted a state-wide town hall series to talk about the apportionment process and the gerrymandering that twists district boundaries to maintain control on behalf of the political party in power, which happens to be the Republicans in recent decades. (Democrats have been equally as guilty in the past when it was their chance to guarantee their continued control over who gets elected in Lansing and Congress.)
Voters Not Politicians is proposing a 13-member reapportionment panel comprising four Democrats, four Republicans, and five independent panel members not affiliated with any major political party.
Now we get to 2018 and Voters Not Politicians generated – in record time – sufficient signatures to put the issue on the November ballot for the electorate. But a group called the Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution – a front for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce – decided to challenge the ballot issue in court just as the Michigan Board of State Canvassers was ready to certify the issue for the general election ballot this year.
I say the group is a veiled front for the state Chamber of Commerce because the filing papers for the Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution group has the same address as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce at 600 S. Walnut Street in Lansing. And the treasurer for the opposition group is one of the head guys at the Chamber. The main line of funding for the opposition group, $85,000 plus, has come from one of three political action committees underwritten by the Chamber, PAC II, used for advocacy on ballot issues. Then there is Fair Line American, a major out-of-state donor that is an affiliate of the national GOP designed to protect their gerrymandered districts throughout the country, and a western Michigan businessman and strong GOP donor who has kicked in $100,000 so far as part of this effort.
The Voters Not Politicians group has raised just over $790,000 through the first quarter of this year, mostly from small donations. A California group – Campaign for Democracy – has donated $72,000 for the ballot drive, so forces outside Michigan will eventually be lining up on both sides of this issue if it survives the court challenged.
As to the court challenge, the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected as “without merit” the group’s lawsuit which contended the ballot proposal represents a general overhaul of the state Constitution that should only be done via a constitutional convention. After the loss at the appeals court level, the opposition group turned to the Michigan Supreme Court, where an order was issued on June 14 for immediate consideration which should mean a decision by the end of July, depending on its ruling, would allow time to still get this on the fall ballot. The state Supreme Court has refused a stay on the lower court decision, so the issue has now been certified for the ballot but until there is a final ruling, who knows whether there will be sufficient time to promote the proposal to voters.
Call me a pessimist but I am concerned how a court with a Republican bent can be counted on to render an unbiased ruling on the reapportionment ballot issue. I know we are all taught at an early age that judges are supposed to be free of politics and when running for election or re-election, judges are not listed as having a political party. But I am not convinced that is how the system works in a state where judicial candidates are nominated by political parties at conventions. Further, when you look at the current seven-member Supreme Court, keep in mind that five of the members were appointed by Republican Gov. Snyder.
I said it a year ago in a column – with both legislative chambers and the governor’s office in the hands of the GOP here in Michigan, you can forget under the current system about any political equity in districts that are drawn after the federal census in 2020. Somehow I hope I am proven wrong and the gerrymandering comes to an end so that we – the voters – not those in power, determine who will hold elected office in the future.