Folks, let’s just get right to it and call the effort to “reform” Michigan’s system of reapportioning its Congressional and legislative districts for what it is — an abomination.
Hard to imagine that anything could be as badly researched, poorly thought-out and ineptly written as Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s flawed effort to create a “part-time” Michigan Legislature, for which petitioners are supposedly now in the field trying to collect signatures to put on the statewide ballot.
Fact is, though, the allegedly “grassroots” group calling itself “Voters Not Politicians” (VNP) has produced a Rube Goldberg-like contraption that is even worse. Even progressive Democrats yearning for something (anything!) that would overturn the current system (whereby Republicans have been in charge of drawing Michigan’s maps for the past two decades) are embarrassed by what their own side, as an alternative, has produced.
Why are we talking about this, anyway? Because VNP wants to scrap the system Michigan has used for 180 years to reapportion its Congressional and state legislative districts, a process that has often produced blatant gerrymanders, by both major parties. Instead, VNP wants to make Michigan the seventh state to use some form of what might be called an “independent commission” to redraw the maps every 10 years, after a decennial census. The rest of the country relies on either its Legislature or some form of commission with input from politicians to do the remaps.
But what VNP has come up with is a side-slapping laugher.
In a nutshell, even if the Board of State Canvassers approves what VNP has submitted to the Secretary of State, even if petition circulators then collect the requisite 315,000-plus valid signatures to get on the statewide ballot in 2018, even if voters approve the proposal, the state can look forward to astronomical costs in trying to put it into effect, a new state bureaucracy on steroids, a Secretary of State (whoever it is) with unaccountable new powers, and literally years of litigation seeking to overturn the new set-up, stretching all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But wait! What exactly IS this atrocity, anyway? Here is the basic outline:
— The VNP language sets up a 13-member, “independent citizens” redistricting commission to handle the task of drawing lines, and spells out who — and who cannot — be on the commission. Yes, there can be four Democrats and four Republicans on the commission, but the balance of power will be held by five supposed “independents.” Keep in mind that, in Michigan, the law does not require anybody to register to vote by party.
— A commissioner can not have been, in the past six years, a candidate or elected official to a “partisan” federal, state, or local office. Also prohibited are officers, precinct delegates, or any member of a leadership body for national, state or local political parties during the past six years.
— A person cannot be a commissioner if s/he has been a consultant or employee of a federal, state, or local election official or candidate, or of a political action committee (PAC) or “like organization.”
— No person can be a commissioner if s/he has been an employee of the Legislature or of a statewide elected official, a registered lobbyist, an employee of a registered lobbyist, or an unclassified employee of the state.
— No person can be a commissioner who is RELATED to any of the people in the above list by “two or three degrees of consanguinity or by two or three degrees of affinity.”
— Nobody can be a commissioner who has been convicted of a felony in the past 10 years, nor can a commissioner hold a partisan political office for five years after the date of an appointment (Remember, federal courts have already ruled that only the U.S. Congress can be the arbiter of who its Members are).
— The new “power behind the throne” of the redistricting process will be Michigan’s Secretary of State, whoever that turns out to be in 2020-21. Why? Because this constitutional amendment gives the SoS full authority to determine how random samples will be drawn from a list of more than 10,000 voters. No requirements appear in the text of the proposal that empower the Legislature to provide by law how the sample will be drawn from the massive pool, and implemented. Nor does the text of the proposal even require that the SoS promulgate administrative rules on random sampling and weighting of the sample.
— The deadline for applications to serve on the commission will be July 1, 2020. The proposal requires the SoS to ensure that 50% of applicants who move to the next stage of the selection process come from individuals who return those randomly drawn unrequested applications that the SoS has mailed out to voters s/he has selected. Left out of the VNP text is whether the names and addresses of individuals receiving the mailed applications are subject to FOIA. Does this permit political parties and interest groups to contact these randomly drawn individuals and encourage them to complete the application process? It goes without saying that any applicant to be a commissioner will be required to give voter registration address, age, gender, race, perhaps sexual preference, and whichever political party (or “no party”) they identify with.
— Yes, the petition’s language stipulates that, in drawing maps, the commission should use such court-mandated criteria as equal population, geographical contiguity, compactness, and consideration of local government boundaries. But it also requires that districts be created that “reflect the state’s diverse population and communities of interest,” which the VNP language says should include populations that share undefined “cultural or historical characteristics and economic interests.”
— Each commissioner will be paid 25% of the compensation of the Governor. In 2016, Michigan’s Governor was scheduled to be paid $159,300. Rick Snyder returned all but $1 of his salary. Gubernatorial salaries are determined by the State Officers Compensation Commission (SOCC) which, after imposing a 10% pay cut in 2010 and a subsequent pay freeze over the past seven years, has recommended a pay increase to $177,600 for the governor. That would translate into an annual $44,400 salary for each of the commissioners, which is far more than legislators’ pay would be if Lt. Gov. Calley’s constitutional amendment is approved next year.
— Although the Michigan Supreme Court could still review any challenge to a plan adopted by the commission, if the high bench doesn’t believe the commission’s blueprint meets constitutional requirements, it must remand back to the commission any decision for further action. “In no event,” the petition’s language states, shall any other body, even the Supreme Court, be allowed to adopt a redistricting plan for the state. Only the commission will be allowed to do that. Furthermore, the petition’s language makes plain that the commission cannot be tampered with by the Legislature or the Governor. The commission’s “responsibilities, operations, functions, contracts, consultants and employees” cannot be altered by any branch of state government.
There is more, much more, in VNP’s whopping eight-page petition language, but suffice to say that this proposal appears to be the product of what might be called The Second Progressive Era of American politics. In other words, selection of commissioners is to be made on the basis of the applicants’ demographic characteristics. If the First Progressive Era of the early 20th Century emphasized that selection of commissioners should be based on testing of special skills or expertise of the applicant, the VNP criteria stipulate that the personal biography and physiognomy of the applicant should be paramount. How far should this be extended? Perhaps whether the applicant is right-handed or left-handed should be a factor, or myriad other considerations.
It’s no surprise that the Board of State Canvassers has taken more than three weeks even to schedule a meeting on the VNP enterprise. Opponents of VNP shouldn’t worry — no matter what happens from here on out, what is embodied in the VNP proposal makes the Donald Trump White House, by comparison, look like a smooth, well-oiled machine.
We’re unlikely ever to see VNP maps. This effort is born to fail.