Lansing — Republicans who have dominated recent state and federal elections are mobilizing in opposition as a grassroots group nears its signature goal for a 2018 ballot proposal to create an independent commission that would redraw political maps.
The Michigan Republican Party and local affiliates are warning supporters about the petition, alleging it is a veiled attempt by Democrats to change the rules of a game they are losing. Longtime GOP attorneys also are plotting a legal attempt to kill the measure before it makes the ballot.
“As I’ve often told people, it’s a lot cheaper to keep a proposal off the ballot than it is to try to defeat it in a multimillion-dollar campaign,” said attorney Bob LaBrant, who helped form an opposition committee that could raise money for a potential court challenge.
Petition drive organizers, who maintain their effort and aim is nonpartisan, are gearing up for a fight as well. The Voters Not Politicians committee said Thursday it has hired the Fraser Trebilcock law firm “focused on ensuring voters get an opportunity to have their say.”
Supporters say they’re not surprised by opposition from Republicans, arguing the current system has allowed the majority party to “gerrymander” political boundaries to grow outsized advantages in Washington, D.C., and Lansing.
“I understand that’s hard-core politics, but I believe that from a moral and ethical standpoint, it happens to be wrong,” said former Congressman Joe Schwarz, who served as a Republican but now identifies as an independent.
Current Michigan law tasks the state Legislature with drawing new political boundaries every 10 years following the decennial U.S. Census. Republicans led the process in 2011 because they enjoyed full control of the state House, Senate and governor’s office.
The Voters Not Politicians petition would amend the state Constitution to create a 13-member redistricting commission with four members who self-identify as Democrats, four as Republicans and five others who are “non-affiliated” and independent.
Volunteers have collected more than 300,000 signatures since mid-August, organizers say, upending expectations for a group that has not paid for professional circulators. The committee needs 315,654 valid signatures to make the ballot and hopes to turn in close to 400,000 to ensure validation by the Board of State Canvassers.
Petition drive killer
LaBrant has snuffed out petition drives before. He helped mount a 2008 challenge against “Reform Michigan Government Now,” a sweeping proposal that sought to shrink the size of the Michigan Supreme Court and the Legislature, create new redistricting rules and more.
Supporters submitted more than 487,000 signatures. But a Michigan Court of Appeals panel kept the measure off the ballot, ruling it was an illegal attempt to enact a general revision of the state constitution, which could only be done through calling of a constitutional convention.
“I think there’s some serious questions as to whether (the Voters Not Politicians proposal) is in fact more of a general revision than an amendment,” LaBrant said, drawing parallels to the 2008 measure that would have revised 24 sections of the state constitution.
The new proposal would change 11 sections of the Michigan Constitution, including the creation of an elaborate new process for the Michigan Secretary of State’s office to randomly select members for the independent redistricting commission.
But unlike the 2008 measure, the new proposal has a singular goal of changing redistricting rules, said Katie Fahey, who began organizing the grassroots committee last year through a Facebook post.
“We’re not concerned about the substance at all,” she said of the petition.
While Voters Not Politicians stresses its non-partisan nature, several board members have supported Democrats in the past, including Fahey, who flew last year to New York for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s election night party.
As The Detroit News reported in August, seven of 10 board members had given at least a combined $5,649 to Democratic candidates and causes since 2005, according state and federal campaign finance records compiled by the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative advocacy group. None had given to Republicans, but the campaign said this week two board members gave a combined $75 to Republicans in September, October and November.
The Michigan Republican Party highlighted board members’ past contributions to Democrats in a recent handout. The Midland County GOP, in a recent email to activists, blasted what it called a “fraudulent initiative” and urged readers to “tell every Republican you know” not to sign the petition.
“This is a wolf in sheep’s clothing by the Democrats who cannot win at the ballot box, so they want to take over the process,” said state party spokeswoman Sarah Anderson.
Organizers have downplayed their past political giving, suggesting their proposal looks “beyond party politics.” In a a recent fundraising email, the committee accused “establishment elites” of working the thwart the initiative.
The Michigan Democratic Party is not affiliated with the ballot committee, said spokesman Paul Kanan, who added that “bringing an end to gerrymandering should be a non-partisan issue.”
Advocates argue the proposal would also prevent Democrats from manipulating political boundaries should they retake control of state government by 2020.
“I think people understand that it’s the system that is broken,” Fahey said, “and when they look at our proposal, too, they see, ‘Oh this does seem fair, and it does seem like the way to move forward.’”
Republicans deny any wrongdoing when they last redrew the lines in 2011, noting their plan won pre-approval from the U.S. Justice Department under President Barack Obama and adhered to state and federal rules.
But critics argue Michigan is one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation. Republican President Donald Trump won Michigan by 0.23 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, a near split among statewide voters, yet Republicans maintained a 9-5 advantage in the U.S. House and a 63-47 majority in the state House.
“Our districts are being drawn in such a blatantly partisan way that it defies logic,” Schwarz said.
In the grassroots
Voters Not Politicians raised $278,297 for the petition drive through Oct. 20, according to state records, far less than experts say is typically spent on successful petition drives. With $154,532 in the bank, the group has hired attorneys and the Martin Waymire public relations firm.
The group said it relied on more than 3,500 volunteers to collect signatures across 13 regions.
In the summer, volunteers collected signatures at outdoor public events, including concerts and farmers markets. As winter approaches, the group is planning an Election Day push, asking volunteers across the state to collect signatures near polling places Tuesday.
“I’m dedicated to being here every single day because I don’t want to miss a single signature,” said Dawne Botke-Coe, who is collecting inside her Triple Goddess bookstore in Lansing.
Even critics acknowledge they’ve been impressed by the effort.
“I think they’ve done an excellent job of developing a grassroots network of very impassioned people,” LaBrant said. “You take everybody in the Trump resistance and you give them a clipboard, and they’re probably out there collecting those signatures.”
But LaBrant called the group’s proposal “convoluted,” arguing provisions limiting participation by residents or relatives with political connections would leave “13 people with absolutely no experience” in charge of the complex redistricting process.
“It seems to me this constitutional amendment was drafted with one person in mind, and that’s Jocelyn Benson,” he said, referencing a Democratic candidate seeking the party’s 2018 nomination for secretary of state.
Michigan’s next election official “is basically going to recommend who (the commission will) hire as staff, who they ought to hire as consultants and what kind of software packages and hardware packages the commission should procure,” he said.
Benson, who lost the 2010 election for the post, said she has not reviewed every detail of the proposal but “wholeheartedly” supports the concept of citizen-led redistricting.
Benson helped organize a “citizens redistricting competition” in 2011, soliciting political maps from the public. The winning map came from the president of the Central Michigan University College Republicans.
“He drew a great map with competitive districts all around,” she said. “We presented that to Lansing, and they didn’t accept it.”