Michigan launches applications for redistricting commission

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The state of Michigan received about 100 applications within an hour of opening the online application portal for a new redistricting commission that will redraw the state's voting boundaries for 2022. 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks with media after announcing the opening of the application process for the independent citizens redistricting commission on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office launched the eight-month application period Thursday alongside announcements of a statewide information campaign that will include mailers, television spots and town halls. 

The launch of the application and education process comes shortly after the Legislature adopted a budget for the effort that is about $2 million less than what was initially recommended, prompting the department to partner with philanthropic groups to help with the education campaign. 

"We have many partners throughout the state who will be airing and supporting the education efforts pro bono," Benson told reporters Thursday. "...We've also been cutting costs within our department to make sure that we're able to fulfill our constitutional responsibility."

The Legislature last month rejected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's original proposed $4.6 million for the commission and approved $3.4 million. But a supplemental spending bill introduced by Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, would add $2 million for the department of state's formation of the commission. 

The commission will include 13 randomly selected residents made up of four Republican members, four Democratic members and five members who do not affiliate with either party. They’ll be responsible in 2020 for redrawing the district lines for the state House, Senate and U.S. Congress.

"Every citizen has an opportunity to serve, and there's no prior education or experience required," Benson said. "We don't want anyone to feel that their voice isn't informed enough to play a role in this process."

Although residents can access and submit an application online, no application is complete until it is printed, signed, notarized and then returned to Secretary of State branches in person or by mail. Branch offices and some independent notaries will provide free notary services for the application, Benson said. 

After the June 1, 2020 deadline for applications, an independent accounting firm will randomly select 200 applicants.

Of those 200, a total of 20 can be struck by the Legislature's minority and majority leaders. The final 13 will be selected randomly from the group of 180 to 200 and paid $40,000 for their work, about a quarter of the governor's salary. 

Between fall 2020 and fall 2021, the 13-member commission will meet, host town halls for input and eventually draw the maps for implementation in the 2022 elections. 

Workshops where residents can receive instructions on applying will take place between early November and early December across the state. 

A public service announcement expected to be aired statewide encourages residents to apply through redistrictingmichigan.org in a 30-second video clip. 

"Last year, Michigan voters opened the door to historic change," a narrator says over images of doorways, porches and the Capitol. "Now, no matter what door you live behind, you have an opportunity to serve on the independent citizens redistricting commission and redraw our election maps to ensure they're fair."

In addition to offering an online application process, Benson plans to mail more than 10,000 applications to random registered voters this year to invite them to apply.

Voters approved Proposal 2, the constitutional amendment creating the commission, by a 61% margin in November. The ballot initiative was spearheaded by Voters Not Politicians.

The commission remains a source of litigation in federal court by Republicans, who allege the rules surrounding the selection of the commission discriminate against some residents by prohibiting individuals from serving if they have partisan connections.  

The constitutional amendment prohibits service on the commission by anyone who in the last six years was a partisan candidate, elected official, political appointee, lobbyist, campaign consultant and officer, or member of the governing body of a political party.

It also prohibits a parent, child or spouse of any of those individuals from serving on the 13-member commission.

The intent of the rules is to avoid the self-interest that may occur if voting lines are drawn by politicians or those with an interest in ensuring those politicians stay in office, said Nancy Wang, executive director for Voters Not Politicians. 

"The only people who are excluded from serving on the independent commission are those very people that were involved in gerrymandering our maps," including "parties and politicians" and "registered lobbyist agents," Wang said. "It's all the people that depend on those people too for financial or their livelihood."

Benson said she wasn't worried about a federal lawsuit casting a shadow on current efforts. 

"I believe that our responsibility is to further the will of the people that was very clear when they spoke last November to amend their constitution," she said. 

Because they were the majority party, GOP lawmakers controlled the state’s redistricting process in 2011 and were successfully sued for political gerrymandering of “historic proportions.”

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week tossed a three-judge ruling in that case that would have required a substantial redrawing of district maps in Michigan in time for 2020, earlier than the planned 2022 redrawing.