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A group that wants to change the way Michigan draws political boundaries thinks the key is keeping politicians in both parties far away from the process.

That profound distrust of elected officeholders (and most everyone who has ever had anything to do with one)  pervades everything from the group’s name — Voters Not Politicians — to the details of its plan to end partisan gerrymandering.

The core of that plan is a constitutional amendment that would wrest the responsibility for drawing Michigan’s congressional and legislative districts from the state Legislature and place it in the hands of an independent, 13-member citizens commission.

Voters Not Politicians wants to put its blueprint for such a commission before voters in 2018, and a good chunk of its seven-page, single-spaced proposal is devoted to specifying who would be disqualified from participating.

A partial list of those the group wants nowhere near the redistricting process includes anyone who has held a partisan elected office or served as a party official anywhere in America in the last six years, anyone who has ever worked as an employee or consultant for such a person, and anyone related to either by “two or fewer degrees of consanguinity or by three or fewer degrees of affinity.”

So if your grandmother is a Republican precinct delegate in Kalkaska, you’re out. Ditto if your niece interned for the governor of Hawaii.

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Getting to 13

If Voters Not Politicians succeeds in getting its plan on the ballot and winning the electorate’s approval, voters unsullied by any association with yucky politicians could begin applying for seats on the commission in 2020.

Once a sufficient number of applicants had volunteered to serve (for a modest per diem amounting to a little less than $40,000 for a year’s work), the Secretary of State’s Office would randomly draw names until it had amassed a pool of 200 applicants consisting of 60 self-identified Democrats, 60 self-identified Republicans, and 80 voters professing independence from either major party.

After the Democratic and Republican leaders of the state House and Senate had each exercised the option to eliminate up to five names from the pool, the Secretary of State would hold a second random drawing to determine which 13 applicants would join the redistricting commission.

In April 2021, when the federal government provides states with population data from the 2020 census, the commission (and whatever experts it chose to hire with its $4.7-million budget) would get to work parsing the state’s voters into 14 congressional districts, 38 state Senate districts, and 110 state House districts representing roughly the same number of residents.

Under Voters Not Politicians’ proposed amendment, the actual mapmaking process would commence only after a series of 10 public hearings to solicit suggestions from interested parties throughout the state. 

Subsequent work sessions to discuss various configurations of Michigan’s political boundaries, any data marshaled to inform those discussions, and the climactic vote in which a majority of commissioners (including at least two Democrats, two Republicans and two independents) coalesced around a final set of district maps would all be open to the public. 

Once the commission agreed, only the Michigan Supreme Court could raise any objections to the new maps — and it would be the commission’s job, not the courts, to make any needed revisions.

Is it just me, or is this beginning to sound a little, you know, complicated?

Democracy under fire

Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that the problem Voters Not Politicians seeks to address with its convoluted reform plan is a genuine one — a crisis that has made a mockery of the democratic process in Michigan and other states where the dominant political party has distorted the political map for partisan advantage.

By exploiting control of the mapmaking process to pack Democratic voters into the fewest possible districts and distribute Republican voters across the remaining districts to the maximum advantage of its own candidates, GOP state legislators have conjured a political landscape in which Republican votes effectively count more than Democratic ones,

Last November, for instance, Republican state House candidates amassed just 3,000 more votes statewide than their Democratic opponents, yet managed to win a commanding 63-47 majority in the new Legislative session. 

Yes, Democrats did the same thing when they controlled the Michigan Legislature in previous census years — and the party perpetuates similar distortions today in the relatively few states where Democratic elected officials dominate the reapportionment process.

But computer algorithms and data mining advances that enable software engineers to manipulate districts with ever-more-surgical precision have given whichever party dominates the redistricting process the biggest advantage they’ve ever enjoyed.

And by the reckoning of those who study the electoral process, Michigan Republicans have been more successful than their counterparts in other states in devaluing Democratic votes.

The road not taken

Michigan is one of 33 states in which the party that controls the Legislature in the year after a decennial census enjoys virtually unfettered control of the mapmaking process. Most of the remaining states have sought to assure both major parties a meaningful role in redistricting, but about half a dozen have attempted to minimize either party’s role in the process.

Mark Grebner, a Democratic Ingham County Commissioner and veteran political consultant with few peers in the realm of election wonkery, says Voters Not Politicians chose the latter route after concluding that distrust of the professional politicians was a sentiment that resonated with voters across the political spectrum.

“They set out to write a ballot proposal that is anti-politician and anti-corruption,” Grebner says.

Walter Sorg, a longtime political activist who has emerged as the spokesperson for VNP, confirms that the group deliberately chose nonpartisanship over bipartisanship. 

“Both parties gerrymander when they have the chance,” concedes Sorg, who held communications roles in Gov. James Blanchard’s administration and made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in his Lansing state House district in 2012.

The limits of populism

Sorg and his allies are surely preaching to the choir when they tell me and the rest of the electorate  that voters should chose their elected representatives, not the other way around. But I wonder if a populism that dismisses all politicians and all political parties as irredeemably corrupt can ever revive confidence in the democratic process. 

That’s the kind of cynicism that gave Michigan term limits, whose only real impact has been to diminish legislators’ experience and competence and magnify the role of lobbyists and unelected bureaucrats.

VNP has many hurdles to clear before its proposal makes it anywhere near the 2018 ballot, and I hope its champions get the opportunity to make their case that their reform plan, which looks a little clunky coming out of the box, is an improvement over the status quo. 

But Michigan’s better shot at fair elections might be a U.S. Supreme Court decision setting clear limits on how far either party may go in manipulating political boundaries to their candidate’s advantage.

Contact Brian Dickerson: bdickerson@freepress.com

 

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