by Jonathan Oosting, Detroit News
Aug. 14, 2017

A Michigan petition aimed at preventing political gerrymandering will go before the Board of State Canvassers on Thursday, when potential approval could end a delay that cost organizers more than a month of prime summer signature-gathering time.

The “Voters Not Politicians” petition proposes creating an independent citizen redistricting commission to redraw legislative and congressional boundaries every 10 years, a task currently controlled by the Michigan Legislature.

Organizers submitted language on June 28, prompting Bureau of Elections staff to review what critics are calling an overly complicated proposal to amend the Michigan Constitution. The small-print proposal spans seven pages and would alter or repeal several sections of the state’s primary governing document.

The group made a series of modifications during the review process, including one change Monday morning, spokesman Katie Fahey said later the same day. If the petition is approved as to form, volunteers could begin circulating petitions later this week.

 “We’ve been frustrated,” Fahey said. “By the time of the meeting, it will have been 48 or 49 days since we turned in language. We’ve lost an entire month of the summer, but thankfully Michigan has a lot of fall activities happening too. We have a lot of volunteers set and ready to get going.”

While canvassers will ultimately vote on the matter, the Bureau of Elections “will recommend approval” of the redistricting petition so long as it “contains the edits that were suggested,” Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams said Monday after the group submitted a printer’s affidavit and final draft.

Organizers are seeking pre-approval of the petition as to form, an optional step many groups take in order to avoid potential legal challenges. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s “Clean MI” committee last month began circulating revised part-time Legislature petitions without approval from the board, which had raised questions over an earlier version.

Fahey acknowledged the redistricting plan is “complicated” but called it a “thorough” approach to stopping “unaccountable politicians” from manipulating political lines to benefit their own party’s candidates.

“We’re creating a new commission and helping take power away from the legislators and governor,” she said. “It’s just really detailed so there can’t be any trickery happening.”

Critics argue the petition for a potential 2018 ballot proposal is rife with “sloppy craftsmanship” and could have unforeseen consequences.

“They’ve adopted all these buzzwords, but how they work together, frankly, is mystifying to me,” said Bob Labrant, a Republican attorney who has played a key role in Michigan redistricting efforts since the 1980s.

The proposal would create a 13-member commission that includes four residents who self-identify as Democrats, four who self-identify as Republicans and five others who are “nonaffiliated” and independent, according to the proposed petition language.

Every 10 years, the Michigan Secretary of State’s office would randomly select commissioners from a pool of registered voters who submitted a publicly available application and were not disqualified by Republican or Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

The proposal calls for a cooling-off period for partisan political candidates, elected officials, precinct delegates, lobbyists, consultants or political staffers who could not serve on the commission within six years of holding those jobs. The prohibitions would extend to parents, children or spouses of those individuals.

The commission would be required to hold at least 10 public hearings throughout the state before drafting any redistricting plan. It would be required to publish proposed redistricting plans, along with relevant data and supporting materials, and hold at least five more public hearings on each.

“This is frankly a community organizer’s dream,” said LaBrant, general counsel at The Sterling Corporation in Lansing. “If you can turn out bodies and they can all read from the same three-by-five- index card, and you’ve got people on the commission without any partisan leanings, whoever gets to pack the hearing has got a leg up on determining how these districts are drawn.”

The commission would have to “abide” by certain criteria in crafting districts of equal population, that are geographically contiguous, that reflect Michigan’s diversity and “communities of interest,” that reflect consideration of community boundaries and that are reasonably compact.

Critically, the districts must “not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party,” as determined using “accepted measures of partisan fairness” — which do not appear to be spelled out in the petition.

Michigan’s state House and congressional districts redrawn by Republicans after the 2010 census resulted in one of the most lopsided political advantages in the country last year, according to an Associated Press analysis.

The AP study was based on a new measurement called the “efficiency gap,” which has been criticized by some experts but informed a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s state House boundaries that is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Under the Michigan proposal, final congressional and legislative maps would require majority approval by the commission, with support from at least two members of each major political party and two independents. If that doesn’t happen, commissioners would submit plans, individually rank them and then enact the highest-ranking plan.

Voters Not Politicians said it held more than three dozen public meetings as it developed the petition language. The group would need to collect more than 315,000 signatures in 180 days to put its proposed amendment to the state constitution on the ballot in 2018.

The committee plans to launch its signature gathering operation without paid circulators. More than 7,000 volunteers have signed up to help, according to Fahey, and almost 4,000 of those have been assigned to ground teams.

“We’ve gotten some petitions printed, so we’re hoping we could actually start Thursday, depending on approval,” Fahey said.

Canvassers on Thursday are also expected to consider the form of a statewide petition seeking to require that Michigan employers provide workers with sick leave under certain conditions. Attempts to reach organizers were unsuccessful. A committee phone number went to the voicemail for an activist group called Mothering Justice.

A third petition up for review Thursday was submitted by a pro-marijuana group called Abrogate Prohibition Michigan, but the final language had not yet been submitted to the state by Monday afternoon. Another marijuana legalization petition is already in the field.