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The fight against gerrymandering faces its next obstacle

Dec 19, 2017

Getting a state constitutional amendment on the ballot is a lot harder than it sounds, as many groups have found out over the years.

You have to have the manpower and patience and discipline to collect 315,654 valid signatures within six months. Some of the signatures are always thrown out, often because some people sign twice or aren’t registered to vote.

Normally, the only way you make it is if you have the money to pay professionals to get signatures, usually at the going rate of a dollar a name or more. But the grass roots group Voters Not Politicians got more than 425,000 in less than four months, and did it entirely with volunteers. Early this fall, I saw people standing in line at Detroit’s Eastern Market for a chance to sign their petitions, something I’ve never seen before.

People, not just Democrats, are upset by the outrageous gerrymandering that has made most of our congressional and legislative districts not competitive, something which breeds incompetence, arrogance, and corruption.

Gerrymandering has given the Republican Party effective permanent control of the state senate, but Democrats are anything but saints.

They would almost certainly do the same thing if they could; they’ve done so in Maryland and Illinois. But the system has been rigged here to make sure they’ll never get that chance.

And the ability to do this at all is both wrong and wrong for democracy. Most people understand that; I’ve talked to more than one Trump voter who signed these petitions. Former Republican Congressman Joe Schwarz was an enthusiastic supporter.

But not those in power now, who fear losing control. Republicans know very well that if this gets on the ballot, it will pass, no matter how many misleading ads, paid for by secret dark money, they put on the air. A similar anti-gerrymandering proposal in Ohio got 71 percent of the vote a few years ago. Republicans, and allied special interests, intend to do everything they can to get the courts to keep this from getting before the voters.

They and their allies, such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, have created a number of front groups, with misleading names like Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, and are raising money for legal challenges. They are planning multiple lines of attack.

One approach will be to have the proposal thrown out on a technicality because of a mistake, soon corrected, in an affidavit attached to the petitions when Voters Not Politicians was getting this effort certified by the state. But they will also challenge it on the grounds that it is unconstitutional because it seeks to change too many sections of Michigan’s Constitution.

Those who are opposed to representative democracy are powerful and well-funded, and very used to getting their way. These days, men like state senators Arlan Meekhof and Dave Robertson don’t even bother to conceal their contempt for any effort that would make it easier for people to vote, or that would allow the citizens to know who is paying for commercials like the one that falsely implied that Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack supported terrorists.

The citizens who signed these petitions have made their intentions known. Whether the voters themselves get a chance to decide will be now up to a handful of judges.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.