By Paul Rozycki
“Politics is more difficult than physics.”
– Albert Einstein
Last month’s column took a look at the history and techniques of gerrymandering and its impact on American politics. It’s not hard to see that the process of drawing odd-shaped and unfair election districts favoring one party over another is a major problem and distorts our politics in many ways.
Seeing the problem is the easy part. Fixing it may prove to be more complex than understanding Einstein’s theory of relativity or the space-time continuum. But a committed group of voters — the Voters Not Politicians committee — is willing to make the attempt. They are currently gathering signatures to amend the Michigan Constitution and create a non-partisan commission to draw our election districts.
The proposed amendment would be based on three major principles. First, it would create an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw new legislative districts. Second, it would require transparency, so voters would be fully aware of the process, and third it would require fairness, to assure that both parties are treated equally.
Those all sound very simple, but the devil can be in the details, and the details are complex. Here are the essentials of the proposed amendment.
Who serves on the redistricting commission?
In creating an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (ICRC) the Michigan secretary of state would have the duty of randomly selecting 13 commissioners to draw Michigan’s election maps for the next decade. The commission would consist of four Democrats, four Republicans, and five independent voters, randomly chosen from a list of all registered voters in Michigan. Those who wish to serve must apply to the secretary of state. Those who apply must be registered voters and must indicate their party preference—Democrat, Republican, or independent.
In choosing the members of the commission the secretary of state would select approximately half from those who apply, and the other half from a random list of voters who have been invited to participate.
To insure a truly independent body, a number of individuals are disqualified from serving. Current partisan office holders at the national, state, or local level are excluded. So are close family members of those office holders, as are registered lobbyists, and party officers. Those limits apply for six years after the end of an officeholder’s term. Additionally, a few categories of state employees are also barred from the commission.
As complex as this is, the goal is to assure a truly independent, non-partisan commission. The plan is similar to the one used in California.
Transparency in the redistricting process
In the past, election maps have been drawn behind closed doors, by groups and committees of lawmakers and other interested parties. If the proposed amendment were adopted, the ICRC would be required to conduct its business in public. During the process of creating the new election districts the commission would be required to hold at least 10 public meetings in various parts of the state. At those meetings the public could comment and even offer maps of its own.
Once the final maps are drawn, the ICRC would again be required to hold at least five public meetings where they could hear comments and criticism from the public. All the records and methods used to create the new maps would be published and available to the public. At the end of the process the commissioners are required to write a report explaining their decision and the process used. Any commissioner who disagrees with the final outcome may write a dissenting report explaining his or her disagreements. To make sure that no one party controls the process, a minimum of two Democrats, two Republicans, and two independents are required to approve a final map.
Creating fair districts
The overall goal of creating the commission is to create election districts that are ‘fair’ to all voters. In an attempt to create that sense of fairness, the commission would be required to follow a formal set of rules in their mapmaking process. Some of these rules are already required by federal law and court rulings. For example, the districts must be equal in population, must abide by the Voting Rights Act, may not discriminate along racial lines, and must be contiguous and connected.
However the ICRC would also be required to consider additional factors. Districts can’t favor one party over another, or one candidate over another. They should (if possible) follow existing city, township or county lines. They should be as compact as possible and not spread out over a wide-ranging area.
Perhaps the most complex and controversial guideline given to the commission is that the maps must reflect Michigan’s diverse population and should respect “communities of interest” which are groups who share common cultural, historical, social or economic interests.
As desirable as it may be to protect groups that share common backgrounds, defining exactly what is meant by a “community of interest” may be the most difficult and challenging part of the process. Twenty-four other states have similar laws but a clear definition of a “community of interest” remains vague, as does the process for dealing with conflicting “communities of interest.”
In the end, the ballot proposal creates very specific guidelines and rules for assuring that the process is as fair as possible to all.
One of the most important and challenging tasks of the commission will be to balance the competing guidelines against each other as they try to create fair districts.
The ballot prospects
The Voters Not Politicians ballot committee has been gathering signatures to place the proposed amendment to the Michigan Constitution on the ballot in 2018. To the surprise of many, they are on track to collect the required number of signatures ahead of time. About 315,000 valid signatures are needed, and supporters already claim to have gathered 350,000 and expect to have over 400,000 by the end of the year.
The ballot drive has been remarkable in two ways. It’s been able to gather a large number of signatures in a very short time, and it’s had done it without a cadre of paid workers, which most ballot initiatives use. Nearly all of the work was done by unpaid volunteers who are committed to end gerrymandering in Michigan. Many circulators report widespread support for the measure as they talk with voters and gather signatures. The Voters Not Politicians website offers much more detail on the proposal as well as the campaign itself. (www.votersnotpoliticians.com)
While the proposal has garnered much support in a brief time, it’s not universally popular. Some critics claim that most of the proposal’s advocates are Democrats and that, if implemented, the proposal would help the Democratic Party. Since the Republicans are the current beneficiary of the current gerrymandering, that is probably true. However, Democrats would be bound by the same rules, and would be unable to gerrymander for themselves, when they would be the majority in Lansing.
While gerrymandering is easy to condemn, the very complexity of the proposal has been criticized by some (mostly) Republican groups. The committee opposing the amendment is the Committee to Protect Voters Rights. They argue that the selection process puts too much power in the hands of the Michigan secretary of state, and that picking people at random will result in uninformed individuals making critical, complex decisions for the public.
Some point to the fact that Michigan, unlike most states, doesn’t require individuals to register with a party when signing up to vote. So who is a Republican? Who is a Democrat? Republicans could claim to be Democrats and Democrats could claim to be Republicans. That fact has been a source of more than a little political mischief in the past, and the fear is that it could undermine the nonpartisan nature of the redistricting commission.
There will most likely be a legal challenge in the courts. The proposal, which runs eight pages of small type, would be one of the longest and most complex constitutional amendments to the Michigan Constitution, and would change 11 sections of the document. Some argue that it would amount to a wholesale revision of the Michigan Constitution, and thus should face a full constitutional convention before becoming law.
What other states are doing
Michigan is one of 37 states where a partisan legislature has the duty of creating new election districts every 10 years. It is considered one of the most gerrymandered. Seven states have commissions composed of politicians. Only six states have independent commissions that draw election districts, though some states are considering proposals similar to Michigan’s. Some have commissions that can step in only when the legislature can’t make a decision. California, Arizona, and Iowa are often considered the best examples of states having truly independent commissions. Michigan’s proposal is modeled after
California’s. While the commissions in those three states work fairly well, they haven’t been without controversy. With some regularity, the minority party complains (and files lawsuits) claiming the process is unfair.
Ballot proposals aren’t the only attempts to end partisan gerrymandering. Next month’s East Village Magazine will discuss the court challenges to the practice.
Maybe Einstein was right—politics is more difficult than physics.
EVM political commentator Paul Rozycki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.