Voters Not Politicians suggests 'secret ballots' for final map vote, then clarifies

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The group that developed Michigan's independent redistricting commission as a way to increase transparency in the process suggested Thursday that the panel use "secret ballots" to vote for the maps that will guide Michigan's elections for the next decade. 

Voters Not Politicians Executive Director Nancy Wang made the suggestion Thursday at the commission's public hearing, roughly a month after the commission was criticized for holding a closed-door session. Wang then attempted to clarify her suggestion in a statement later Thursday.

"As you go towards the final vote, first on the collaborative maps as you try to get to a constitutional majority and then to ... individuals, we hope that you will adopt best practices like putting all the maps on the same ballot and voting by secret ballots," Wang said during Thursday's meeting.

When asked whether the commission would use secret ballots, spokesman Edward Woods said the commission "has not decided on the process."

The constitutional amendment promoted by Voters Not Politicians and approved by voters in 2018 to establish the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission makes no mention of secret ballots. It requires that the commission "shall conduct all of its business at open meetings."

When the commission takes its final vote on proposed maps for state House, state Senate and congressional seats in late December, they must have a majority for approval that includes two Republicans, two Democrats and two nonpartisan members. The 13-member panel is made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independent members. 

In a statement after the meeting Thursday, Wang attempted to clarify what she meant by "secret ballots," outlining a process that would allow every commission member to write down their map of choice on a sheet of paper with their name on it. The chair would then read out the maps with the names of the supporting commissioners, Wang said. 

The process would allow members to "express themselves clearly and without the pressure that a roll call, or a vote on each map, might present."

"This process is not outlined in the amendment, Wang wrote. "Voters Not Politicians offers it in the spirit of ensuring all commissioners can express themselves clearly and transparently, but reducing peer pressure or political party pressure to vote as a block."

Nancy Wang

Conservative groups ripped the suggestion Wang made during the meeting. Tony Daunt, executive director Fair and Independent Redistricting Maps, noted secret ballots "wouldn't just violate the spirit of the process — it would likely break the law."

Wang's comments came ahead of statements from commissioners Dustin Witjes, a Democrat, and Rebecca Szetela, an independent, in which both commissioners floated the possibility of releasing confidential memos they discussed during an October meeting. 

"This is something that I don't want to handle now," Witjes said at the end of the Thursday meeting. "I just want people to think about it."

Attorney General Dana Nessel still is reviewing the commission's actions in late October, when the panel entered closed-door session to discuss two legal memos.

Sens. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, and Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, asked the Plymouth Democrat to weigh in on whether the decision to enter closed session violated the 2018 voter-approved constitutional amendment that says the commission "shall conduct all of its business at open meetings."

The commission voted 11-2 in October to enter closed session to discuss confidential memos titled "Voting Rights Act" and "The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and Its Influence on Voting." 

The secret meeting lasted about an hour and a half. 

The commission argued the materials were exempt under the Freedom of Information Act and the state's Open Meetings Act allows closed-door sessions to discuss material that is "exempt from disclosure by state or federal statute." But few other bodies have constitutional language requiring all their business to be conducted in public. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com