Opinion: Michigan's redistricting commission must stay independent

Greg McNeilly

Two years ago, Michigan voters went to the polls and approved a constitutional amendment to change how our state handles redistricting. Gone now are the days when the legislature drew new district boundaries after every census.

Voters opted instead to give redistricting responsibility to a brand-new entity, something called an "Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission." A genuinely independent body would draw better lines every ten years, and lines absent of partisan interest — voters were told — if it were made up not of elected officeholders but everyday laypeople without a political party's dog in the fight.

Michigan voters who sought to establish an independent redistricting commission are watching this next hire carefully, McNeilly writes.

This theory might not survive takeoff.

Commissioners right now are considering a new hire. They're picking a lawyer to help guide the group and offer expert advice. One of their leading candidates — a partisan Democrat named James Lancaster — is radically out of the mainstream of political independence. His hiring would fundamentally and foundationally undercut the integrity of the Commission's entire mission.

The General Counsel job is a position with incredible influence, taxpayer funding and power. Those who've interacted with public bodies understand the significance of this position. He or she is often the rudder that steers the entire ship.

Independent "counsel" couldn't be more important both for the Commission's work and to foster the public's trust in the nascent redistricting process.

According to the rules voters agreed to, the Commission is intended to be led by Republicans, Democrats and Independents, and it is designed to function independently of partisan political interests.

Thus far, the Commissioners (who were selected randomly from a pool of applicants by the Secretary of State) have done a commendable job keeping and defending independence. 

Just weeks ago, when the group was choosing an executive director, several candidates for the job had mild ties to the Republican Party. Numerous commissioners ably pointed out significant concerns over even the perception of partisanship in the independent body's work. They publicly opposed the hiring of individuals with even tangential ties to partisan politics.

It was a smart call, and it established an important precedent and standard.

Mr. Lancaster's partisan history favoring Democrats is far more explicit and frequent than the records of Republican candidates rejected in their bids to serve on staff.

First, he has a long history of political contributions to Democrats. These contributions are a matter of public record through the state's Bureau of Elections and the FEC.  Beyond his giving history, he has a lengthy record of public comments blistering Republicans and conservative political causes. 

He's also quick to lob partisan grenades; he used his public interview for a position on an "independent" commission to fire off personal insults at conservative activists. It was a telling display that added questions about his temperament to the Commission's answers about his politics.

If the Commission is determined to undermine the Constitutional intent of partisan independence, it ought to at least achieve the pluralistic value of bipartisanship and hire two lawyers — one of each stripe. However, even this solution is clearly not the intent of the voters who adopted the mandate.

While Mr. Lancaster has every right to fight for the liberal candidates and causes he holds dear — and to publicly and forcefully criticize Republicans and Independents whenever he'd like — the "independent" citizens commission must zealously guard its independence.

Michigan voters who sought to establish an independent redistricting commission are watching this next hire carefully. The Commission has set a clear standard of rejecting candidates for staff positions that would undermine voters' trust in the process. 

Mr. Lancaster's apparent political allegiance would grossly undermine its objectivity and mission.

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.