Opinion: Independent Commission won't fix gerrymandering

David Doerr

In the midterm election, Michigan voters bothered by the state’s rampant gerrymandering overwhelming passed Proposition Two. This referendum creates an independent commission, composed of the state citizens, which will control the drawing of district lines.

There was certainly cause for concern under the old redistricting system, especially after leaked emails showed Michigan Republicans explicitly discussing the best ways to tilt the electoral map for partisan advantage. But while the debate over the best way to handle redistricting is important, recklessly implementing independent commissions is dangerous, and will only serve as a band-aid on a bullet hole.  

Michigan isn’t the only state that has decided to implement independent redistricting commissions. California, Arizona, Idaho, and Washington all use independent commissions to draw their congressional districts, and Colorado also recently approved a similar measure to Michigan’s Proposition Two. Michigan’s commission will be comprised of 13 individuals randomly selected by the Secretary of State. Five of the 13 will be registered Republicans, four registered Democrats, and the remaining five independents. The proposition also noted that “partisan officeholders and candidates, their employees, certain relatives, and lobbyists” will be prohibited from serving on the commission.

This system is ripe for abuse, and opportunities for corruption abound. Those opposed to redistricting done through state legislatures often claim that having politicians “choose their voters” makes legislators unaccountable, but an independent commission doesn’t solve this issue— it makes it worse. There’s no way whatsoever for the people to hold commissioners accountable for their misdeeds, as the only way to remove a commissioner under Michigan’s new system is by a vote among other commissioners. In their effort to increase accountability during district formation, Michigan voters have unwittingly thrown power to an unelected board of bureaucrats instead.

Over 100 demonstrators rally outside the Michigan Hall of Justice Wednesday, July 18, 2018, where the Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the constitution should be amended by voters to change the way political districts are made.

Yet by far the biggest weakness of the independent commission lies in the vague nature of its goals. The commission will have to account for geographical contiguity, and any district map it comes up with must comply with the Voting Rights Act. But while these guidelines make sense, its other goals are not nearly as well-defined. For instance, the proposition states that the districts should “reflect the state’s diversity and ‘communities of interest’.” What this means is completely unclear, and the phrase “communities of interest” creates leeway for the drawing of maps that clearly advantage one party over another.

This highlights the biggest flaw with independent commissions in general. As National Review writer Kevin Williamson explains, the problem critics have with legislative redistricting is basically that politics is too political. Yet realistically, there is no way to keep partisan politics from dominating the redistricting process—and independent commissions have themselves become tools of the Democratic Party.

Liberal activists dominate the ballot question committee Voters not Politicians, which sponsored Michigan’s Proposition Two. Seven of its 10 board members have donated to Democratic candidates, and former Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Commission donated$250,000 to the group back in September. Make no mistake—the left knows that independent commissions favor their own electoral interests, and that is why liberal groups across the country have fought so hard to support them.

This tactic worked in California. According to a 2011 ProPublica investigation, California Democrats were able to influence the independent commission by enlisting various left-of-center groups and individuals to testify before the commission without disclosing their ties to the party. The result was that Democrats were able to push through a district map that effectively protected Democratic incumbents in the northern part of the state, considered vulnerable before the redistricting.

So while the idea of taking the power over district lines away from state legislatures seems appealing, independent commissions are not a viable alternative. Trying to make districts as non-partisan as possible is a noble goal, but it’s essentially unobtainable. Independent commissions only serve to provide the illusion of neutrality. By giving into knee-jerk backlash against the old system, Michigan voters haven’t really solved the problem—they’ve only tricked themselves into thinking they have.

David Doerr is a student at Hillsdale College and a writer for Young Voices.