Redistricting group has signatures, still fighting to make ballot

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — A group trying change the way Michigan draws political boundaries rallied Thursday at the Capitol and urged state officials to put the proposal on the November ballot despite a legal challenge.

Katie Fahey of Voters Not Politicians speaks to supporters at the Michigan Capitol on May 24, 2018.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections said Tuesday that Voters Not Politicians turned in an estimated 394,092 signatures, more than the 315,654 required, for a ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission that would redo congressional and legislative maps every ten years instead of lawmakers.

The Board of State Canvassers was set to consider certification Thursday but on Wednesday cancelled the meeting, citing ongoing litigation. Organizers and volunteers came to the Capitol anyway.

“I drove from Troy because I want to remind the Board of State Canvassers that we got all the signatures — and a lot more — and all they have to do is say that we did and let the voters decide this issue in November,” said Jamie Lyons-Eddy, a former teacher and who helped organize petition circulators.

Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, a committee opposing the redistricting plan, filed a legal complaint last month with the state Court of Appeals in an attempt to keep the proposal off the ballot. The complaint argues the proposal would amend or abrogate more sections of the Michigan Constitution than indicated on the petition. 

The Bureau of Elections recommended certification despite the court case, but Board of State Canvassers Chairman Norm Shinkle said there was not majority support to certify petitions Thursday so he cancelled the meeting.

“I don’t think there’s a question about the sufficiency of signatures, the question is as to form,” he said, referencing legal arguments.

“Nobody can anticipate what the courts are going to do,” Shinkle said. “Obviously if they hold that everything is fine, it’s going to pass. What we do is not going to determine what the courts will do.”

Voters Not Politicians, which relied on volunteer circulators, submitted signatures to the state in December and waited months for the Bureau of Elections to complete its review. 

Executive Director Katie Fahey said delays make it harder to prepare for the fall election. It’s easier to campaign if voters can be told what the ballot number will be, she said, and uncertainty can depress fundraising.

“The Board of Canvassers' job and role is to certify that we’ve got enough signatures,” Fahey said. “That’s the only thing we’re looking for them to do, and there’s no reason not to.”

The initiative would amend the constitution to create a 13-member redistricting commission with four Democrats, four Republicans and five members who are supposed to be “non-affiliated” and independent.

Supporters argue the current system — which allows the state Legislature to redraw boundaries every decade — gives the majority party freedom to “gerrymander” or rig political boundaries and gain election day advantages to hold on to power in Washington, D.C., and Lansing.

But the secretary of state and Board of State Canvassers should reject the petition on two grounds, attorneys for the opposition group argue in a lawsuit before the Michigan Court of Appeals.

First, it is so “broad in scope” that it constitutes a general revision of the Michigan Constitution that can only be accomplished through a constitutional convention. Second, they contend, the language does not appropriately reference four sections of the Constitution it would effectively repeal, as required.

While Voters Not Politicians bills itself a nonpartisan organization and touts support from former GOP Congressman Joe Schwartz, some organizers have donated to Democrats in the past. The Michigan Republican Party has criticized the proposal.

The suit was filed on behalf of two voters who attorneys say would be disqualified from participating on the independent commission because of proposed rules prohibiting members with direct or indirect connects to politics in the past six years.

Joseph Spyke of Ingham County has been a paid staffer for several political candidates, said attorney Peter Ellsworth. He currently is a volunteer for Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James and helped collect signatures for James as a part-time contractor. Jeanne Daunt of Genesee County would be precluded because she is the mother of GOP operative Tony Daunt, executive director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund.

“She thinks it’s ridiculous that she would be prohibited from applying for the Rube Goldberg mess of a panel that is the VNP redistricting commission by virtue of being related to me,” Daunt said in an email.

The Michigan Court of Appeals last week rejected a motion to slow down the case. Voters Not Politicians have asked for an expedited process and are expected to file a motion next week asking the court to compel canvassers to certify petitions.

Opponents are “throwing every legal attempt they can think of” to keep the measure off the ballot, Fahey said in an email to supporters. “They know that if voters get the chance, a majority of us will vote to pass our initiative to establish a fair, impartial and transparent redistricting process that puts voters first instead of politicians and special interests.”

Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution has primarily been financed by a Michigan Chamber of Commerce political action committee and John C. Kennedy, CEO of Autocam in Kentwood and a prolific GOP donor. The chamber paid for $85,000 in legal fees in March and Kennedy donated $100,000, according to state disclosure records.

Voters Not Politicians reported $790,705 in contributions  through the end of April, most coming from smaller individual donors. A California nonprofit called the “Campaign for Democracy” donated $72,605 in February.

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