Group hits state for delaying gerrymandering petitions

Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A grassroots group seeking to “end rigged districts” in Michigan is criticizing the Bureau of Elections for a lengthy petition review process organizers say is “simply not acceptable.”

The Voters Not Politicians committee had hoped to begin collecting signatures this week for a potential 2018 ballot proposal that would create an independent commission to draw political boundaries. But the group said the bureau has not yet completed a review of language it submitted on June 28.

“This is an unprecedented delay,” committee President Katie Fahey said Monday during an online press conference originally intended to mark the birthday of Elbridge Gerry, whose name inspired the phrase “gerrymandering.”

“Unlike most petition drives, we are unpaid,” Fahey said. “We are volunteers collecting signatures. The summer is much more preferable for doing that. We would like the Bureau of Elections to make the people of Michigan a priority and follow through on the expectations they set.”

The group is seeking form approval from the Board of State Canvassers, an optional step petition drives often take to avoid potential legal challenges down the line. The Bureau of Elections typically makes a recommendation, and Fahey said the group expected action within two to 10 days.

But Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said the review can range anywhere from a few days to weeks, depending on what is submitted. The group has not yet filed a printer’s proof of the petition for board consideration.

Like a separate petition seeking to make Michigan’s Legislature a part-time body, Voters Not Politicians is proposing an amendment to the state Constitution, meaning it must list all sections of the constitution that are repealed or changed.

“The group’s proposal makes multiple changes to the state constitution and staff is being thorough,” Woodhams said in an email, disputing accusations of an unusual delay.

“It’s unfortunate that the group is upset that the legal review the state is providing at no cost to them didn’t come soon enough for them to celebrate the birthday of Elbridge Gerry, but they are being treated the same as any other group with a proposed constitutional amendment.”

Michigan and other states redraw political districts every 10 years after the U.S. census. Critics say Michigan’s rules, which allows whichever political party is in power to control the process, has allowed Republicans to carve out a distinct partisan advantage here in recent years.

The new proposal would shift the authority to draw congressional and legislative district lines from the Legislature and governor to a new 13-person commission.

The commission would include four commissioners who self-identify as Democrats, four who self-identify as Republicans and five others who are “non-affiliated” and independent, according to the proposed petition language.

Every 10 years, the Michigan Secretary of State’s office would randomly select commissioners from a pool of registered voters who submitted a publicly available application and were not disqualified by Republican or Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

The proposal calls for a cooling-off period for partisan political candidates, elected officials, precinct delegates, lobbyists, consultants or political staffers who could not serve on the commission within six years of holding those jobs.

The commission would be required to hold at least 10 public hearings throughout the state before drafting any redistricting plan. It would be required to publish proposed redistricting plans, along with relevant data and supporting materials, and hold at least five more public hearings on each.

The commission would have to “abide” by certain criteria in crafting districts of equal population, that are geographically contiguous, that reflect Michigan’s diversity and “communities of interest,” that reflect consideration of community boundaries and that are reasonably compact.

Critically, the districts must “not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party,” as determined using “accepted measures of partisan fairness” — which do not appear to be spelled out in the petition.

Michigan’s state House and congressional districts redrawn by Republicans after the 2010 census report resulted in one of the most lopsided advantages in the country last year, according to an Associated Press analysis.

The AP study was based on a new measurement called the “efficiency gap,” which has been criticized by some experts but which informed a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s state House boundaries that is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Under the Michigan proposal, final congressional and legislative maps would require majority approval by the commission, with support from at least two members of each major political party and two independents. If that doesn’t happen, commissioners would submit plans, individually rank them and then enact the highest-ranking plan.

Voters Not Politicians said it held more than three dozen public meetings as it developed the petition language. The group would need to collect more than 315,000 signatures to put its proposed amendment to the state constitution on the ballot in 2018.

“We look forward to launching our signature gathering as soon as we hear back from the Bureau of Elections,” Fahey said.