Jacques: Michigan's not so 'independent' redistricting commission

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is forging ahead with its political mapmaking, despite recent revelations that raise serious questions about the “independent” nature of its work. 

Just because the word is in the name does not make it so.

The commission, by law, is supposed to be made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents. 

But two of the professed independent members of the commission appear to have strong ties to Democrats or liberal causes. This adds to a pattern of partisanship the redistricting commission was purportedly designed to avoid.

Independents are supposed to be unaffiliated with either Republican or Democratic parties, as dictated by the Constitution, following the passage of Proposal 2 in 2018. The voter-approved amendment moved control of redistricting from the state Legislature to the commission. 

Commissioners were randomly selected by the Secretary of State’s Office, which is run by Democrat Jocelyn Benson. 

Two recent reports from the Washington Free Beacon undermine the nonpartisan aims of the commission, and Michigan citizens deserve a full accounting. This group has the power to fundamentally change the political makeup of the state for years to come in redrawing congressional and legislative district lines. 

Transparency is key. 

Rebecca Szetela, an attorney, applied as an independent, claiming no affiliation with either the Republican or Democratic parties, but she has donated to EMILY’s List, a group committed to electing pro-abortion, Democratic women, as well as to other Democratic candidates and groups, the Free Beacon reports. Szetela also has spoken to the Progressive Democratic Women’s Caucus of Muskegon County.

Commissioner Rebecca Szetela

This follows a report that fellow “independent” commissioner Anthony Eid had previously backed liberal candidates. Eid had said he was “proud to live in a state that voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary” in 2016. 

Past social media posts, which exhibit blatant racist and sexist comments, have come back to haunt Eid as well. Gongwer recently published some of the tweets.

Commissioner Anthony Eid

“Voters cannot trust the integrity of an independent commission when almost half of the supposedly independent commissioners get caught lying about their Democratic Party affiliation,” says Tori Sachs, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund. “There should be no tolerance for the staggering dishonesty on display along with the repulsive, racist, and misogynistic comments that are now tainting the hard, important work of the other commission members. It’s time they resign before voters’ trust is fully shattered in this critical process.”

Similarly, Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser is displeased and called in a statement Thursday for the two members to resign:  

“The independent redistricting commission has once again shown they are anything but. The recent revelation that two of the ‘independent’ commissioners are Democrat donors is unacceptable.” 

In addition, the commission has opened its doors to experts like Matthew Petering, a professor from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to present on a map-drawing algorithm he developed (Petering’s also a Bernie Sanders financial supporter). 

Yet it has refused to grant an equal opportunity to former state Supreme Court justice Stephen Markman, who has sought for months to address the commission over his concerns with its definition of community in forming district lines. Markman teaches constitutional law at Hillsdale College, which commissioned him to write a report to the redistricting commission on this issue. 

Just this week, a commission spokesman alerted Hillsdale that Markman could present during the two-minute public comment period afforded to any concerned citizen — something he’s already done. 

That’s an insult to Markman and belies the commission’s supposed bipartisanship. It should give equal time to a diversity of viewpoints. 

The commission did last month hire BakerHostetler as litigation counsel, which some say is too connected with defending Republicans and their gerrymandered districts. No surprise, Eid and Szetela voted against hiring the firm. 

These instances highlight how difficult it is to achieve a truly independent redistricting effort, regardless of how good it sounds on paper. Michigan citizens deserve to know who exactly is overhauling their political districts.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques