Initiative would establish bipartisan commission to set districts, voting advocates say
Major Michigan business groups say a statewide ballot initiative to change the way legislative districts are drawn is flawed and unnecessary, but supporters believe the plan would help achieve shared policy goals and restore public faith in politics.
On July 18, the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Voters Not Politicians’ initiative to create a bipartisan redistricting commission with the goal of stopping “gerrymandered” state and congressional voting districts. The group Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution — with financial and legal backing from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — is challenging the proposal, alleging it is a broad rewrite of the state Constitution and thus requires a constitutional convention to enact.
While the state Chamber and Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce officials say they take constitutional amendments seriously, it is unclear how the groups’ members would be directly affected by a change in the way districts are drawn, especially when compared to issues like raising the minimum wage or mandatory paid sick leave.
Andy Johnston, vice president of government and corporate affairs with the Grand Rapids Chamber, said the group opposes the initiative for a “whole variety of reasons,” including its overly broad language. He added that the current system in which the party in power determines districts “has worked well,” despite research showing Michigan likely has gerrymandered districts favoring Republicans.
“When it comes to how we elect our representation and decisions they make about the business climate, that has a big impact,” Johnston said. “As an advocacy group representing the business community, we have a stake when a group wants to amend the Constitution.”
Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber, said members face a broader threat in how ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments are approved.
“Most business people understand the importance of having a stable and predictable legal climate,” Studley said. “We’ll become the wild west of ballot initiatives. … If there are no rules about petitions, we’re taking a giant step toward anarchy and chaos and some crazy banana republic.”
Voters Not Politicians Executive Director Katie Fahey counters that a 13-member redistricting commission made up of Republican, Democratic and Independent voters could positively impact businesses. While the group is nonpartisan, its efforts come as Republicans have gained strong majorities in statewide and congressional races since 2000.
Along with term limits, Fahey says partisan redistricting has led to ineffective policies from the state Legislature, including the inability for years to reach an adequate road-funding deal.
“We’ve received tremendous support from business owners across the state,” Fahey said, adding the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce recently endorsed the initiative. “Not only is this a good first step in solving issues like fixing roads and investing in education, it also helps restore Michiganders’ confidence in the democratic process. By changing that and restoring the public’s faith … we see that resonates with businesses.”
Former Republican Congressman Joe Schwarz, who serves on the Voters Not Politicians board, wrote in a May op-ed that he regrets participating in the partisan redistricting process.
“We know today our roads are broken, our education system is failing and water hasn’t been safe to drink in communities from Rockford to Mio, Grayling to Flint. And partisan redistricting is part of the reason why,” Schwarz wrote.
The partisan process, he added, “has pushed out the kinds of politicians Michigan used to have, members on both sides of the aisle who could see a problem and work together to compromise and devise a solution.”
Johnston and Studley said the redistricting process is not a threat to the democratic process.
“The current system has worked well by transferring power from Republicans to Democrats and back again,” Johnston said. “I disagree with saying gerrymandering is taking place.”
In saying it’s “silly” to believe the Michigan Chamber supports gerrymandering, Studley said the initiative “cure is worse than the disease, however well-intentioned. … Proponents have painted an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the current process.”
However, the groups’ positions run counter to a body of nonpartisan research showing Michigan is likely among the worst offenders when it comes to gerrymandering. The downside of the practice — a decades-old problem exacerbated by both political parties in power — is that the party in control draws legislative districts to favor themselves. Since 2001 in Michigan, total votes between Democrats and Republicans have remained fairly close, but Republicans hold a strong majority in the state House and Senate and among U.S. Congressional seats.
A June report by the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan Inc. ran three different tests to see whether Michigan’s districts were unfairly drawn over the past two decades based on election outcomes.
“Michigan’s maps are beyond the threshold for what is considered gerrymandering, and show other signs that would indicate gerrymandering occurred,” according to the report. Since 2001, the report adds, “It would suggest that Republicans have had a consistent advantage in all election types.”
“This isn’t happening by random chance or simply by the way we’ve sorted ourselves by rural and urban areas,” Citizens Research Council President Eric Lupher told MiBiz. “Gerrymandering has to be playing a role in our election results.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to rule on two cases that involved whether voting districts were gerrymandered in Wisconsin and Maryland. However, the issue is unlikely to go away at the nation’s high court, as it seeks to adopt a standard for determining whether districts are gerrymandered for partisan purposes. Separately, an ongoing federal lawsuit led by former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer is challenging the state’s maps.
“The Republican Party has been pretty upfront on a nationwide basis targeting states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina to try to tilt the scales to benefit their party by controlling the redistricting process,” Lupher said.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Johnston contends that the 13-member commission would be unelected and not accountable to voters, while the process also would be driven by the partisan Secretary of State’s office. Fahey counters that lawmakers in charge of the process now aren’t held accountable.
“Politicians right now can pick their own voters for elections they’re about to run in. It’s virtually non-competitive elections in Michigan when it comes to the general election,” she said, noting that the most consequential races take place during primaries that have lower voter turnout. “It’s why they gerrymander: They can guarantee election results.”
Fahey says the proposal would make the redistricting process more open to the public and that lawsuits could be filed against the commission if groups believe new boundaries are unfair.
“Right now, that accountability doesn’t exist,” Fahey said.
Studley contends these loftier goals for the government are far-fetched.
“Anytime someone says, ‘Let’s take politics out of government,’ it seems to me at best to be a well intentioned but perhaps naive or unrealistic idea,” Studley said. “I wish more people who signed the petition or who are active with Voters Not Politicians would try to have a positive impact on the problem by running for office themselves.”
NARROW OR BROAD?
The question before the Michigan Supreme Court — where Republican justices hold a 5-2 majority — is whether the initiative is a broad rewrite of the state Constitution or a narrow change to the way legislative districts are drawn. In June, a three-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals sided with Voters Not Politicians, ruling it would be a narrow change.
Another Citizens Research Council report this year said the proposal appears to be narrow enough to qualify for the ballot.
“It seems this is closer to an amendment than a revision (of the Constitution) in our eyes,” Lupher said.
If the state Supreme Court upholds the Court of Appeals decision, Studley said an unintended consequence would be “there are no rules for petition drives.”
“The Supreme Court case could have a major impact on what petition drives and ballot proposals look like in the future,” Studley said.
Both sides remain optimistic as the Supreme Court deliberates the matter, which could take days or weeks. If the Court of Appeals decision is upheld, voters will decide on the issue in the November election.
“We got a strongly favorable and very clear decision from the Court of Appeals that said our opposition’s case is without merit,” Fahey said. “There’s no reason why the Supreme Court would not do that as well.”
While opponents, including GOP gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Bill Schuette, argue the proposal is a broad rewrite of the state Constitution, supporters say it only impacts the redistricting process. States including California and Arizona have moved from a political process to one that is citizen-led, according to Fahey.
“It’s hard to understand why we would be denied that same opportunity,” Fahey said.