Redistricting plan's next battle: Boiling down the proposal to 100 words

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Democrats Jeannette L. Bradshaw, left, and Julie Maturak look over paperwork. XXXXOnly minutes after calling their meeting to order members of the board of state canvassers, including, Republicans Colleen Pero and Norman D. Shinkle and Democrats Jeannette L. Bradshaw and Julie Maturak, take an hour-long recess to review an emergency appeal by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to stop the recount of votes filed by Jill Stein. This meeting is held at The Lansing Center, Friday morning, December 2, 2016. (Todd McInturf, The Detroit News)2016.

After the Michigan Supreme Court decided late Tuesday that a redistricting proposal can go on the November ballot, the next battle will focus on how the plan is summarized in 100 words for Michigan's voters.  

The anti-gerrymandering proposal secured its place on the general election ballot when the high court ruled 4-3 that the proposed changes did not “significantly alter or abolish the form or structure of our government" and didn't require a constitutional convention for adoption.

The Voters Not Politicians plan would create a 13-member independent commission to draw political boundaries instead of the political party in power.

Opponents funded by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce argued the measure in part puts the task of redistricting into the hands of random appointees, instead of representatives elected by the people.

The Michigan chamber is disappointed with the Supreme Court ruling, CEO Rich Studley said Wednesday, but will respect the decision. The chamber's involvement in advertising campaigns opposed to the measure remains to be seen, he said.   

Studley anticipated a "difficult, almost impossible" task ahead for the State Bureau of Elections as it attempts "to fairly and accurately summarize this proposal in 100 words or less" for the ballot. 

The Supreme Court decision was a big hurdle to clear for the ballot committee Voters Not Politicians, said Mark Brewer, lead attorney in a federal suit challenging fairness of the 2011 redistricting maps. 

"The next fight will be over the ballot summary, which as we all know is very important, because that’s what voters end up voting on," Brewer said. "And I expect they’ll face very well-financed corporate money contributions on the other side to try to defeat it."

The Bureau of Elections will solicit draft language for the 100-word proposal in the coming weeks and put it to a vote of the Board of State Canvassers sometime before the Sept. 7 deadline for the language, said Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams. 

The ballot committee Voters Not Politicians had no trouble collecting more than 425,000 signatures with the 100-word summary on its petition, said VNP Executive Director Katie Fahey. She did not anticipate any obstacles to developing a new one. 

"The basic premise of this proposal is exactly what our name is, that voters should redraw these lines. not politicians," Fahey said. 

The proposal would add more than 3,000 words to the Michigan Constitution and change or strike 11 separate sections.

The ballot proposal would end the traditional legislative involvement in the redrawing of political boundaries — a process performed every 10 years. Instead, the secretary of state would select applicants for the 13-member commission — four Democrats, four Republicans and five members not affiliated with any major political party.

At the beginning of 2020, the next federal census year, the new secretary of state would make blank applications available “in a manner that invites wide public participation” and send applications to 10,000 randomly selected Michigan voters.

Residents who choose to apply must identify with which party they affiliate, if any. The proposal prohibits applicants who have been a candidate for office, an elected official, a member of a political party, a consultant to a political party, an employee of the Legislature or registered lobbyist within six years of the application. 

An appointed commissioner cannot hold a partisan elected office within five years after his or her appointment. Close relatives of an elected official, political consultant, legislative employee or lobbyist also are banned from applying within the same time frames.

The secretary of state must continue mailing applications until he or she receives 30 qualifying applications from each major party, and 40 applications from independents.

The application window would end June 1, at which point the secretary of state would pick at random 60 applicants from each major party and 80 applicants from the unaffiliated pool and submit them to majority and minority leaders in the state House and Senate. Half of the applications submitted to legislative leadership would come from the pool sent applications and half from the pool who initiated an application without prompting.

Each of the four leaders can strike up to five of the applicants, for a total of 20, from the list by Aug. 1. Then the secretary of state would pull four names at random from the remaining applicants in each party and five from the remaining pool of non-affiliated applicants.

The commission would convene no later than Oct. 15 of the same year and adopt a redistricting plan no later than Nov. 1 of the next year.

The redistricting process would include at least 10 public hearings throughout the state before commissioners start drawing maps and accept from the public written submissions, proposed plans or underlying data. Districts should be of equal population, geographically contiguous, reflect the state’s “diverse population” and not provide a “disproportionate advantage” to any political party. Plans for proposed redistricting would need to be published and then discussed in five public hearings.

A final decision for each district would require a majority vote of the commissioners, including two members from each party and two from among the non-affiliated members. If the commission is unable to reach that majority, it will use ranked voting for each of the proposed redistricting maps.

"It requires people to compromise," Fahey said. "It requires Democrats, Republicans and independents to reach these conclusions together.”

The term of a commissioner will end once the commission “has completed its obligation.”

The secretary of state would act as the non-voting secretary for the commission. The commission would elect its own chairperson, set up its own rules and hire staff, consultants and legal representation.

The Legislature would appropriate the money needed to pay commissioners — who would be paid not less than 25 percent of the governor’s salary of $159,300 a year — or $39,820. The appropriation would cover the staff or consulting costs at an amount not less than 25 percent of the secretary of state’s general fund budget.

Commissioners would be banned from discussing redistricting matters with each other or with the public unless the conversation takes place in a public meeting or in writing.

While the process to summarize the proposal may be challenging, the real headache would start should the proposal be approved in November, said Bill Ballenger, a former GOP state legislator and head of The Ballenger Report.

"It's likely to be a very messy, confusing, litigious process to get to the point where maps can finally be settled on," Ballenger said, noting that the most controversial issue may be the role of a partisan secretary of state in the process. 

The secretary of state will have a purely administrative role, Fahey said.

"We trust the secretary of state to oversee the elections we hold in Michigan," she said. 

Republicans lived a "charmed life" when it came to redistricting efforts in 2001 and 2011 and could lose that with a citizens commission, Ballenger said. But if Democrats win control in November, a successful redistricting ballot proposal could work in favor of the GOP by diminishing Democratic influence, he said. 

Democrats, Ballenger said, may "rue the day that this commission ever was created because otherwise they would have been in a position to redraw the maps."

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