LANSING, MICH. - A group says it wants to amend Michigan’s constitution to end political gerrymandering of election districts, taking the job of drawing the districts away from politicians and putting it in the hands of an independent commission.
The group Voters Not Politicians would have to collect close to 316,000 valid signatures to get the proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2018 ballot.
"I think Michigan voters overall have been frustrated at points with their government," and "don't trust their elected representatives with drawing election maps," Katie Fahey, the group's president and treasurer, told the Free Press today.
The proposal would establish a 13-member independent citizens commission on which independent voters would have five members, and the two major parties would each have four.
Elected officials, lobbyists, party officials and other political insiders would be ineligible to serve on the commission, which would hold public hearings before approving proposed district maps by majority vote, with at least two votes required from each of the three groups represented on the commission.
While county lines and other municipal boundaries now form the building blocks of election districts, the commission would look to other factors, such as "communities of interest," and seek to create districts that are politically competitive.
Fahey said her group has submitted proposed ballot language to the Board of State Canvassers but has not yet received a date for a public hearing.
Drawing of Michigan's electoral districts is now controlled by lawmakers who control the state Legislature, with disputes resolved by the Michigan Supreme Court, whose members run on a nonpartisan ballot but are nominated by state political parties.
Both legislative chambers, the governor's office and the Michigan Supreme Court have been controlled by Republicans in recent years, and groups mostly associated with the Michigan Democratic Party have been pushing for change.
Fahey, who lives in Caledonia near Grand Rapids and works for the Michigan Recycling Coalition, said her group is taking a nonpartisan approach and that changes in redistricting are backed by voters from both parties.
"Voters should choose their politicians, not the other way around," she said in a news release. "When politicians control the process, they can create districts dominated by their supporters while marginalizing the opposition. They can choose their own voters."
Fahey said the proposal emerged from more than three dozen public meetings around Michigan.
She said her group has raised more than $100,000 but plans to use volunteers, rather than paid signature collectors. She said more than 7,000 people have volunteered to participate.
Robert LaBrant, senior counsel at the Republican consulting firm the Sterling Corp. and a former Michigan Chamber of Commerce official with extensive involvement with redistricting efforts in Michigan, said the proposal gives considerable influence to a partisan Secretary of State, partly by requiring that none of the commissioners have any political experience.
The Secretary of State could influence both the selection of the commissioners and how the commission operates, he said.
LaBrant said he also sees problems moving away from counties and other municipal lines as the building blocks of election districts in favor of undefined "communities of interest," while also calling for election districts that will be politically competitive. There is an apparent conflict between districts with shared interests and districts that are politically competitive, he said.
"If we think we've got contorted, bizarrely shaped districts now," that would be amplified under the criteria set out in the proposal, LaBrant told the Free Press.
In 2012, Michigan Democrats received 52% of the votes cast for state House, but won 46% of the seats. In 2014, Democrats received 51% of the votes for state House and won 43% of the seats. And in 2016, Democrats received just under 50% of the votes for state House, and again won 43% of the seats.
In congressional races in 2016, Democrats received 47% of the votes, but won just 36% of the seats, records show.
Some analysts say overly partisan districts have contributed to hyper-partisanship in state legislatures and Congress, and an inability for the two parties to work together.
"People are demanding change, and I think the level of interest in the town hall meetings reflects that," said Nancy Wang, clinical assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan and chair of the Voters Not Politicians policy team. "Voters are frustrated by what they see as a lack of responsiveness from the state Legislature and Congress, and are looking to change that."
In a separate initiative, attorney and former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer is preparing a federal lawsuit over partisan redistricting.
Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.
© 2017 Detroit Free Press