Redistricting without politics

Bob LaBrant

Before Michigan voters are asked to approve a constitutional amendment in 2018, the ballot question committee Voters Not Politicians needs to demonstrate to Michiganians they won’t be voting for a perceived cure that’s worse than the disease.

Voters Not Politicians wants to create an Independent Redistricting Commission to replace the state legislature as the body that will redraw congressional and state legislative districts after the 2020 federal census.

It’s worth noting that Michigan had a Commission on Legislative Apportionment from 1964 to 1982. It didn’t work. It always failed.

A proposed ballot question would ask voters to approve an Independent Redistricting Committee like ones in Colorado and California. Districts would be redrawn in Michigan after scores and scores of public hearings held across the state, in which commissioners will hear why a district should be drawn a particular way in order to protect a perceived “community of interest.” Of course that term is undefined.

I know what a county is, I know what a city is, I know what a township is, but for the life of me, I don’t know what a community of interest is? It certainly is not an objective standard for commissioners to apply neutrally. Rather it is a subjective standard that gives wide discretion to the commission to play politics.

Another complaint this ballot question committee makes is that some current districts are not always compact. An Independent Redistricting Commission does not guarantee compact district shapes or competitive elections. In fact, you’ll find districts drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission in California bizarrely shaped.

At a 2015 forum in Ohio on redistricting, Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center pointed to a district drawn in California that is just a sliver of land that snakes up the west side of the state. “It stretches about 200 miles up the Pacific coast of California, where at high tide the land almost disappears,” said Li. The district was drawn that way because it preserves a “communities of interest” presented in testimony to the Commission. Michigan stands in contrast drawing district lines on county, city and township boundary lines.

In both California and Colorado, partisan interests hijacked their Independent Redistricting Commissions. Pro Publica reported a process rife with partisan interests that created a political slugfest under the deceptive guise of “independent.”

In “How Democrats Fooled California’s Redistricting Commission,” Pro Publica reporters disclosed a coordinated plan the Democrats executed “to deliver synchronized testimony that would herd the commission toward the desired outcomes.” Elected officials, operatives, and consultants packed Commission hearings with supporters demanding their "community of interest’ be reflected in the district line drawing.

Voters Not Politicians continues this charade. A bevy of past Democrat partisans are acting like they want to take the politics out of redistricting. They should start by deleting the term communities of interest from the text of their proposed constitutional amendment. They should retain the Apol standards that keep intact counties, cities and townships. The Michigan Supreme Court ordered those standards into effect unanimously in 1982 as the best defense against partisan gerrymandering.

Watch to see if after their series of regional meetings on redistricting, Voters Not Politicians merely copies the California and Colorado models including their reliance on using an undefined “communities of interest” standard to draw maps. If they do, be prepared to say no.

Bob LaBrant serves as senior counsel at Sterling Corp.