Proponents wrangle over ballot language on redistricting

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Supporters of an initiative to create an independent redistricting commission gather outside the Michigan Supreme Court on July 18, 2018

A former lawyer for the Michigan Republican Party is insisting November ballot language related to a redistricting proposal refer to the citizen group that would decide voting boundaries as “majority partisan,” not “independent.”

The ballot proposal, an effort to reform gerrymandering of voting districts, would require the secretary of state to consider applications and select from them an independent citizens redistricting commission to draw political lines instead of the political party in power at the time. The commission would be comprised of four people who identify as Republican, four as Democrat and five as independent.

A minority of five self-identified independents “cannot — under anyone’s definition — qualify the commission as ‘independent,’” lawyer Eric Doster said in an Aug. 13 email to the Bureau of Elections.

“Although the proposal’s proponents may attempt to classify the commission as an ‘independent’ commission, the question becomes, ‘independent’ of what?” wrote Doster. 

A former long-time lawyer for the Michigan Republican Party specializing in election and campaign finance law, Doster said he is working for a committee formed to oppose the ballot measure, but declined to say which one. He said he is not working for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce-backed committee Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution.

The recommendations from Doster are confusing, said David Waymire, a spokesman for Voters Not Politicians, the committee that worked to get the proposal on the ballot.  He added that Doster's suggestions fail to follow the Michigan Constitution, which prohibits ballot language from creating "prejudice for or against the proposed amendment."

"The purpose of Proposal 2 is simple: It’s about having citizens, not politicians, work transparently to create legislative districts that do not benefit any politicians or political party," Waymire said in a statement. 

State Bureau of Elections Director Sally Williams will consider the recommendations from Doster as well as ones from Voters Not Politicians as she drafts a proposed 100-word summary for the November ballot, said secretary of state spokesman Fred Woodhams. 

"The proposed language will be given to the Board of State Canvassers to vote for or against," he said in an email. "If it’s not approved, it will be redrafted and resubmitted."

Doster’s email to canvassers also suggests the ballot summary mention the proposal would prevent people from becoming members of the commission “because of certain marital and family relationships,” include members selected by a “partisan elected secretary of state,” and grant redistricting power to a commission “not subject to the control or approval of the people.”

Voters Not Politicians lawyer James Lancaster instead suggests the ballot wording describe the proposal as a way to “revive” an independent redistricting commission, “require transparency” in the redistricting process, exclude lobbyists and partisan candidates and elected officials, and require districts “that do not favor or disfavor a particular candidate, elected official or political party.”

The Voters Not Publication recommendation does not include the cost, which Doster lists as a mandated minimum of $5 million with $44,400 for each commissioner.

Doster’s email is the latest challenge to a proposal that has had a rough path to the ballot, including disputes before the Board of State Canvassers, the state Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court.

In their argument before the Supreme Court, lawyers for Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, an opposition group funded by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, argued the measure puts the task of redistricting into the hands of random appointees, instead of representatives elected by the people.

They also argued the measure was too expansive to be considered a simple amendment to the state Constitution and should be the subject of a constitutional convention instead.

The state’s highest court ruled that voter-initiated proposals are permissible if they do not “significantly alter or abolish the form or structure of our government, making it tantamount to creating a new constitution.” The redistricting proposal “surpasses these hurdles,” Justice David Viviano wrote in the 4-3 majority opinion.

The redistricting proposal will join at least two other statewide proposals on the ballot: one that would legalize recreational marijuana and another that would mandate paid sick leave.

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