Group fights anti-gerrymandering plan in court

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A fight about letting an independent commission draw Michigan’s political boundaries instead of the party in power is heading to state court.

Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, a group formed to oppose the proposed ballot measure, has asked the state Court of Appeals to stop state election officials from considering whether to put the redistricting petition on the November ballot.

The group said the plan to create an independent redistricting commission to redraw political maps for Congress and the state Legislature is too far-reaching for a simple ballot proposal. And, the group alleged, four of the 11 constitutional changes the petition proposes did not include the original language of the state Constitution, a detail the group says is required by law.

The Voters Not Politicians petition would create a 13-member redistricting commission with four Democrats, four Republicans and five members who are supposed to be “non-affiliated” and independent.

Supporters argue the current system — which allows the state Legislature to redraw boundaries every 10 years — gives the majority party freedom to “gerrymander” or rig political boundaries and gain election day advantages to hold on to power in Washington, D.C., and Lansing.

The Michigan Republican Party has said the petition is an attempt by Democrats to tinker with political boundaries and gain an advantage under the guise of nonpartisanship.

Petition drive organizers have maintained the effort is nonpartisan. But seven of 10 board members of the Voters Not Politicians petition committee gave at least a combined $5,649 only to Democratic candidates and causes since 2005, according to state and federal campaign finance records compiled by the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund through August 2017. Two board members had since given a combined $75 to Republicans through November 2017.

In its Wednesday filing, Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution said the changes proposed by Voters Not Politicians amount to a revision of the Constitution rather than mere amendments. As such, the revision would need to be decided by a constitutional convention of delegates and not at the voting booth.

“The scale and impact of the (Voters Not Politicians) Proposal is simply too great for its contents to be summarized for their presentation to voters in the voting booth or petitioner-signers passing a signature gatherer on a public sidewalk,” the group said in its motion to the Court of Appeals.

Voters Not Politicians said in a Friday statement it would “vigorously” respond to the lawsuit challenging the proposal, which implies Michigan voters “are not smart enough” to understand the reforms.

Katie Fahey, the founder and executive director of Voters Not Politicians, told The News the lawsuit is a “desperate” attempt by lobbyists and special interests to keep Michigan voters from casting their ballots on the issue.

“Whenever you challenge the status quo and establishment, there’s going to be a lot of people behind it who want to stop you,” she said.

Fahey said the lawsuit’s objections were purely “procedural” and noted that opponents did not challenge the more than 425,000 signatures collected for the ballot initiative.

“I think that’s a huge testament to the volunteers and Michiganders who gathered so many signatures so quickly,” she said.

Jim Lancaster, a lawyer for Voters Not Politicians, said a vote by the people cannot be barred just because a proposal is “complicated.”

In a statement Friday, Lancaster said the proposal does not change the core structures of state government, but “affects only one aspect: redistricting.”

Dave Doyle, spokesman for Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, said the group’s issues with the petition extend beyond the alleged constitutional revision and lack of original constitutional language.

The proposal would change the role of the three branches of government and delegate the redistricting commission’s appointment and procedure to a partisan secretary of state, he said.

The redistricting plan also proposes vague criteria for the commission to follow in redrawing district lines, emphasizing “communities of interest” and “political fairness” and minimizing the role of county or municipal lines, Doyle said.

“I know what a city is, I know what a township is, I know what a county is,” he said. “I’ve no idea what a community of interest is, and what’s politically fair to me may not be politically fair to you.”

Attorney and redistricting expert Bob LaBrant, who helped form the opposition committee, signaled the lawsuit in November, saying it would be less expensive to oppose the proposed ballot measure in court than raise millions of dollars for a campaign fight.

LaBrant helped mount a 2008 challenge against “Reform Michigan Government Now,” a sweeping proposal that sought to shrink the size of the Michigan Supreme Court and the Legislature, create new redistricting rules and more. But a Michigan Court of Appeals panel kept the measure off the ballot, deciding it was an illegal attempt to enact a general revision of the state Constitution, which could only be done through the calling of a constitutional convention.

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