Opinion: Ballot proposals sure to sour if adopted

Robert Norton
Norton writes: "Proposal 2 is slated to cost an initial $5.5 million, which, we can say with confidence, will only increase drastically and rapidly."

Little is more frustrating than when a small, do-it-yourself repair job, like replacing a sink faucet or installing a new electrical outlet, turns into time-consuming, expensive mess. Admitting that you should have let a professional fix the problem is one of the hardest pills to swallow.

Michigan is about to make a similar mess, but on a much larger and more costly scale. Gerrymandering is the problem that needs fixing, and a ballot initiative backed by the Voters Not Politicians group is the repair attempt that will only turn a leaky faucet into a flooded kitchen.

Proposal 2 will amend the Michigan Constitution to install an independent commission tasked with the job of “drawing election district boundaries that encourage fair and competitive elections.”

Voters Not Politicians’ website says this about the independent commission: “The Commission is designed so that all Michigan voters are represented, as fully as possible, in the process of drawing our districts. The final breakdown of the 13 members will consist of: four Republicans, four Democrats, and five members who affiliate with no party or a third-party.”

It sounds as if they want a state legislature. Actually, they want something that poorly imitates a state legislature. Our representatives in the Legislature are elected officials; this committee will consist of unelected, randomly selected individuals appointed ultimately by the Secretary of State.

Furthermore, this commission will not have the normal checks and balances curtailing its power by which the Legislature is currently bound. If the committee stalls or proves ineffective, there is no voting them out, which could prove incredibly costly to the welfare of the state.

Commissioners will be paid $40,000 a year to travel Michigan, interview citizens, attend public hearings, and most importantly draw new district maps. Remarkably, if the commission needs more funds, all it has to do is demand them, and the Legislature can do nothing but appropriate the funds. Even the courts are prohibited from interfering with the process, e.g. like requiring specific revisions be made to a map before it is approved.

All in all, this proposal is slated to cost an initial $5.5 million, which, we can say with confidence, will only increase drastically and rapidly. That’s millions of dollars that will not be spent on fixing our deteriorating roads and cleaning our polluted water.

Voters Not Politicians states this about the map drawing process: “Maps must reflect Michigan’s diverse population and communities of interest (COI). Prioritizing COIs allows the Commission to keep together people who share a strong cultural, historical, or economic interests. VNP’s proposal specifically states, however, that voters’ relationships with one political party or another, or to an incumbent politician or political candidate may not form the basis for a community of interest." 

Did you notice the very political twist this takes and the inherent contradiction? How are people groups who share strong cultural, historical, and economic interests not expected to share political interests and therefore favor a political candidate?

Gerrymandering reform is an important topic, and it is being studied by some of the brightest minds in America. Other proposed remedies to gerrymandering include: bipartisan panels that include a few members from outside the political sphere; a variety of maps presented to an arbitrator or court, the best of which is chosen; and more stringent rules that encourage compact districts following mathematical formulas and algorithms rather than the whims of legislators. These all sound like better solutions than Proposal 2.

Only four states in the country have removed from their legislatures the authority and responsibility of drawing voting district boundaries. California, unsurprisingly, is one such state, and it is their independent commission that is the model for Proposal 2.

Even the Head of California’s commission, Peter Yao, warns that this will cost more than budgeted: “We had $3 million budgeted in the proposition. We’ve spent $10 million.” Almost all of their budget has been spent on fund-draining lawsuits.

Furthermore, recent research conducted jointly by scholars from UCLA and Yale found that district maps drawn by independent commissions are actually more partisan than maps drawn by state legislatures.

Think very carefully, Michigan, about how to best fix our gerrymandering problem. Proposal 2 may sound easy, simple, cheap, and effective. It is anything but that. It will exacerbate the problem, which can be fixed in other more constitutional ways. Vote no on Proposal 2 – Michigan can do better.

Robert Norton is general counsel for Hillsdale College but expresses these views in his personal capacity.