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Lansing — Political party precinct delegates and their family members would not be allowed to serve on Michigan’s new citizen redistricting commission under draft guidelines unveiled Thursday by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

Proposal 2, as approved by voters last fall, calls for creation of a 13-member commission that will be tasked with drawing new legislative and congressional district maps each decade, beginning in 2021 for 2022 elections.

The amendment to the state constitution prohibits anyone who has served as an elected or state party official in the past six years from serving on the bipartisan commission — an attempt to limit overt party influence on the process and discourage partisan gerrymandering.  

Benson’s determination that the prohibition also applies to precinct delegates — a preliminary decision she is inviting the public to comment on — could exclude thousands of Michigan residents elected to serve as liaisons between the state’s roughly 4,800 voting precincts and the two major political parties.

It could also fuel potential legal challenges from critics who say the restrictions on commission membership — which extend to immediate family members of anyone who has held office in the past six years — violate equal protection guarantees under the U.S. Constitution.

Benson acknowledged there was a “lack of clarity” in the ballot proposal. But “we think it’s fairly clear under the language of the constitutional amendment that (precinct delegates are) not eligible, and that’s our determination," she said.

The first-term Democrat said her office spoke with interested parties and found “near universal” agreement that precinct delegates should be excluded from the commission because they could be considered either elected officials or members of a governing board of a political party.

“We welcome, during this public comment, anyone who feels otherwise to make the case,” Benson said.

Benson voluntarily created a public comment period for the guidelines and a draft commissioner application form also released Thursday. Citizens can view the draft documents at RedistrictingMichigan.org and weigh in by emailing Redistricting@Michigan.gov.

Tony Daunt, a conservative critic with the Michigan Freedom Fund, said he was not surprised by Benson’s precinct delegate determination.

“That’s been a fear that we have pointed out for the last however many months since this whole thing started," he said. "That you’re seeking to throw out — to violate the equal protection constitutional protection of hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of Michiganders because of their involvement in the civic process."

“And let’s not forget my mom,” said Daunt, whose mother was part of a 2018 lawsuit seeking to keep Proposal 2 off the ballot on the grounds it will exclude her from serving on the redistricting commission because of his job as a registered lobbyist.

Various conservative groups are talking about the possibility of another lawsuit seeking to block implementation of the commission.

“We still believe that this is an unconstitutional mess, and we continue to look at what the most viable options are in terms of addressing that and attempting to solve or fix those problems,” Daunt said.

Michigan lawmakers have traditionally controlled the redistricting process, most recently in 2011 when the Republican-led Legislature approved maps signed into law by GOP then-Gov. Rick Snyder.

A three-judge federal panel threw out those maps in April, ruling they constituted a gerrymander of “historical proportions.” But the U.S. Supreme Court last month killed the legal challenge in a ruling that will keep the current maps in place through the 2020 elections.

The citizen redistricting commission approved by voters last fall is designed to include four Republicans, four Democrats and five members who do not affiliate with either of the two major political parties.

Under the constitutional amendment as written, those unaffiliated members could include Green Party or Libertarian members, Benson said.

The draft commission application form released Thursday would require applicants to identify their political party and sign an affirmation that their answers are true to the best of their knowledge.

It would also require sign-off by a notary public, an effort to ensure applicants confirm their qualifications and attest to party affiliation, as required under the ballot proposal. Unlike some other states, Michigan voters do not register by political party.

While finding a notary public could prove a barrier to entry for some applicants, Benson said her office is exploring ways to make that process “as convenient as possible,” including tips for how to find a notary, forums that will include notaries or even inviting notaries to branch Secretary of State offices.

“We see this as our effort to comply with the law, but also make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help ensure no one is unnecessarily discouraged from participating,” she said.

Benson said outreach efforts are partially dependent upon funding from the Republican-led Legislature, which has proposed less commission funding than Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Proposal 2 requires the Legislature to provide funding “sufficient to compensate the commissioners and to enable the commission to carry out its functions, operations and activities,” including the hiring of nonpartisan experts and legal counsel. Total funding must amount to at least 25 percent of the general fund budget for the Secretary of State.

Whitmer proposed spending $4.6 million on the redistricting commission next year. Budgets approved by the House and Senate include $3.2 million for the effort but would cut funding for other Secretary of State functions — including election administration — to pay for the commission.  

“The success of this may very well hinge on how well the Legislature funds it at every stage,” said Benson, who noted her office needs additional resources to help get the commission up and running.

The constitutional amendment directs the Michigan Secretary of State to make commission applications available to the general public by Jan. 1, 2020, and circulate them in a manner “that invites wide public participation from different regions of the state.”

Benson expects to have the applications ready by fall. Commissioners will earn roughly $40,000 per year for their role, which the draft application notes could last more than a year and include periods of 20-40 hours a week.

Nancy Wang of Voters Not Politicians, which spearheaded Proposal 2 last year, said her group has already identified more than 1,500 voters who are interested in applying to serve on the commission. She praised Benson for opening up the draft guidelines and application to public comment.

 “Voters overwhelmingly supported a transparent, citizen-centered redistricting process and we are happy to see the Secretary of State’s office is executing its administrative role in that spirit,” Wang said in a statement.

“Under the new amendment, everyday citizens will draw Michigan’s election district maps in a fair, impartial, and transparent way with public input. This is an exciting opportunity to engage in our democracy and restore the people’s trust in our government.”

The new rules will also require Benson’s office to mail applications to 10,000 registered voters, selected at random. The state must continue random mailings until at least 30 qualifying Democrats, 30 Republicans and 40 independents have submitted applications, which must be accepted through June 1, 2020.

By July 2020. Benson will need to randomly select pools of potential commissioners and submit their names to the four main legislative leaders from each party, who will each have the ability to strike up to five applicants.

Benson said that legislative veto process will provide a “key check” on partisan affiliation claims of applicants. Her office does not plan to conduct background checks to verify political party attestations, she said.

From the remaining applicants, Benson will have to randomly select four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents to serve on the commission, a process she must complete by September 2020.

From there, the autonomous commission will begin the process of drawing maps to be first used in the 2022 election. It will be required to hold 15 public meetings along the way.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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