Michigan’s mainstream news media have focused most of their reporting on the grassroots effort that apparently is on its way to collecting the required signatures for the Voters Not Politicians (VNP) proposal to qualify for next year’s general election ballot.
If voters get a crack at VNP, there’s a good chance it will pass. If so, what then?
Unfortunately, news coverage so far has failed utterly to provide any in-depth analysis of how decennial reapportionment would be conducted according to the seven pages of detail contained in the constitutional amendment.
One of the criticisms leveled at the current redistricting system in Michigan by VNP is that the number of seats won by a political party does not currently reflect the percentage of votes that a party receives statewide.
That’s a valid critique that could have been changed by a constitutional amendment, led by VNP, to impose proportional representation on the Michigan legislature. No need to ever again do redistricting. Michigan would simply award the 110 state house seats and 38 state senate seats based on the outcome of a statewide vote. Voters would be asked to vote for either the Republican, Democratic, Green, Libertarian or other qualifying party’s slate of candidates. If Democrats received 44% of the statewide vote for the State Senate they would be entitled to 44% of the seats. That translates into 17 seats in a 38-member Senate. Democrats and the other parties would publish a party list after their state conventions that rank-orders their Senate nominees from 1 to 38. Under the 44%-of-the-statewide-vote scenario, the first 17 listed names on the Democratic Party list would win four-year terms in the Senate.
Most people don’t realize that proportional representation is common in parliamentary democracies across the world, except in the English-speaking nations like Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States, where single member districts, with first-past-the-post elections, are the accepted historical norm.
Voters Not Politicians, despite their expressed aversion to occasional gerrymandering by a political party over time (as the Michigan GOP has enjoyed in both 2001 and 2011), have chosen to continue with the single member district model because the group likely felt voters would reject a constitutional amendment that does not guarantee to the citizenry that someone who lives locally would be representing them at the State Capitol in Lansing.
VNP’s mantra has been that voters should choose their politicians rather than the way VNP claims the process operates now —politicians choosing their voters. But is that claim true? If anyone examines the so-called “Apol Standards” that were unanimously ordered into effect by the Michigan Supreme Court (at that time controlled by Democrats) for the 1982 elections, they will find that counties were used as the basic building block in drawing legislative districts. Under Apol, when it is necessary to break a county’s boundary line, the default procedure for mapmakers (no matter who they are) must be that the legislative district line has to be drawn along a city or township boundary line within that county. In other words, politicians under the Apol Standards aren’t choosing their voters. The districts simply reflect the population of the counties, cities and townships where the voters live.
Single-member districts are perhaps the main reason that the number of seats won by a political party don’t always correspond with the statewide percentage of the vote a political party receives. Two examples illustrate that conclusion:
First, many districts in Wayne County and the City of Detroit are won by Democratic nominees who garner at least 85% of the general election vote. Demographers tell us Democrats are clustered overwhelmingly in urban centers. Republicans are more widely dispersed statewide, particularly into the suburban and rural areas of the state. Republicans therefore tend to win elections by far closer margins, rarely achieving more than 65% of the vote and often winning narrowly.
Second, single-member district elections are decided by multiple factors such as the quality of the candidate, incumbency, campaign spending, and local issues. When voters in the 62nd state House district (Battle Creek and northern Calhoun County) voted in the 2014 and 2016 general elections, electing a Democrat as their state representative to achieve Democratic Party control of the House of Representatives was not the top reason they cast their ballots as they did. Instead, Dr. John Bizon, a Republican physician, was elected both times not because the district was gerrymandered to favor a Republican (in fact, it favored Democrats), but because voters simply felt he was the better choice on the ballot.
But VNP has devised a clever strategy. VNP’s leadership casts itself as nonpartisan, despite the fact that the architects of its petition drive are almost exclusively past Democratic Party activists, donors and even a past Democratic legislative candidate. Most of the media — whether gullible, ignorant, or biased — have for the most part accepted and perpetuated the non-partisan myth.
Removing legislative redistricting, an inherent legislative function, from the Legislature iself to an ostensibly non-partisan or bi-partisan commission is not a new concept, even in Michigan. The 1961-62 Constitutional Convention wrestled with this troublesome issue and produced a clause in the 1963 Michigan Constitution (approved in a statewide vote) creating a Commission on Legislative Apportionment. But this eight-member commission always deadlocked, 4-4. With deadlock, the Constitution transferred the most important political decision to be made in the state each decade to a supposedly non-partisan Supreme Court, even though Supreme Court Justice candidates are nominated at state political party conventions and then run in the general election in November without party label on the non-partisan ballot. The Supreme Court is then mandated to choose from among plans submitted to the Court by the deadlocked commissioners. The high panel is supposed to choose the plan that a Court majority perceives as “most constitutional.” Interestingly, the two plans under the current Constitution considered the most gerrymandered ever were the ones submitted by the Michigan Democratic Party and adopted by the Democrat-controlled Supreme Court in 1964 (Austin-Kleiner) and 1972 (Hatcher-Kleiner).
In 1982, another Michigan Supreme Court attempted to escape from the political thicket by declaring the apportionment commission itself unconstitutional (the Court was still controlled by the Democrats but the vote was unanimous). Next, the Supremes decreed that new legislative district boundaries should be drawn to reflect the 1980 census by a “special master.” That turned out to be state Elections Director Bernie Apol. The Apol Standards, first used in the 1982 election, were used again in 1992, and in 1996 the Legislature codified those Apol Standards for future legislatures to follow in redistricting legislation.
Now, however, the “nonpartisans” at VNP have crafted a constitutional amendment that solves the Democrats’ electoral dilemma by focusing in on two dominating standards: “communities of interest” and calculation of “political fairness.” Because Democrats have the bulk of their voters concentrated in urban areas, they have been winning those election contests with huge majorities even while losing more closely-contested races in suburban and rural areas.. Democratic strategists plainly need to find a way to use redistricting to spread their concentrated majorities outside the core of urban cities into suburban and rural enclaves. That would mean winning not by 90% majorities, but by still-comfortable 58-62% margins in many more districts.
To accomplish that end, VNP downplays the Apol Standard of maintaining the integrity of political subdivision boundary lines (counties, cities and townships) in favor of adopting a vaguely defined standard called “communities of interest.”
How does VNP suggest that a “community of interest” must be protected in line drawing? Democrats will play to the strength of their party (and its interest group allies) in community organizing. Their party and its allies can pack the 15+ public hearings mandated by their amendment with their supporters, demanding to the 13 Redistricting Commissioners that district lines be drawn in such a way as to protect a perceived “community of interest.” It allows Democrats to reverse-engineer a partisan redistricting plan into component “communities of interest” parts to sell to the inexperienced novices who will serve on the Independent Redistricting Commission.
These 13 commissioners are to be selected by a series of random draws based on the statistical weighting of an applicant’s demographic and geographic characteristics, not based on any experience or expertise in government or politics. Anyone who has such experience, or has a relative who does, is specifically prohibited from even applying, but the Secretary of State (whoever it turns out to be) will play a large role in the process. Each of the part-time commissioners will be paid $44,400 a year, which is a quarter of the governor’s salary. A large staff, at taxpayers’ expense, will be necessary to get the job done. The maps they produce, if they survive court challenges, will almost certainly be uglier in shape and complexity than anything the state’s psephologists have produced so far.
Cast in this light, the work product of the Voters Not Politicians Amendment is likely to be an unhappy event in the long history of Michigan government.