Court: Anti-gerrymandering issue fit for Michigan ballot

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Katie Fahey of Voters Not Politicians speaks to supporters at the Michigan Capitol on May 24, 2018.

Lansing — A proposal that would create an independent commission to draw political boundaries instead of politicians should appear on the November ballot, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.  

A three-judge panel unanimously rejected opposition arguments that a petition from Voters Not Politicians represents a general revision of the Michigan Constitution instead of just an amendment. They wrote the complaint is “without merit.”

Instead, the potential ballot proposal is “narrowly tailored” to create a 13-member redistricting commission that would be comprised of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independent members who are not affiliated with any major political party, the court said. 

Voters Not Politicians hoped for speedy approvals from the Board of State Canvassers, the group's founder and executive director Katie Fahey said.

"We believe that given a choice between the status quo our opposition favors – where politicians and lobbyists operate behind closed doors to manipulate districts for partisan benefit — and our proposal —  which puts citizens in charge and mandates full transparency with the public — voters will support Voters Not Politicians in November," Fahey said.

Michigan lawmakers currently redraw legislative and congressional boundaries each decade after the U.S. Census, a process critics say allows the majority party to "gerrymander" districts for political benefit. 

The proposal is “confined to a single purpose, that of correcting the partisan aspects of the constitutional provisions regarding the redistricting commission and does so without interfering with the operation of government,” said the opinion from Judges Mark Cavanagh, Kristen Frank Kelly and Karen Ford Hood.

The ruling directs the Board of State Canvassers to take the necessary steps to put the proposal on the general election ballot.

The Michigan Bureau of Elections last month estimated that the Voters Not Politicians committee had turned in 394,092 signatures, more than the 315,654 required to make the ballot.

The Board of State Canvassers was set to certify the petition in late May but cancelled a scheduled meeting, citing the lawsuit filed by an opposition committee called Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution.

The legal complaint argued the proposal would amend or abrogate more sections of the Michigan Constitution than indicated on the petition. It was also so broad, attorneys argued, that it constitutes a general revision of the Michigan Constitution that can only be accomplished through a constitutional convention. 

Attorney Peter Ellsworth, who represents the group, said Thursday evening he had not yet read the ruling but told The Detroit News an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court is possible.

A spokesman for Citizens Protecting Michigan's Constitution confirmed the opposition committee intends to appeal the decision to the state's highest court. "We think the court of appeals was wrong," said Dave Doyle.

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, including a Republican campaign worker and the mother of a GOP activist.

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.

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.