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The need to trust government

Apr 30, 2018

We could debate endlessly about what people want and expect from state government, but a few things are clear: First, we want a government we can trust and that will respond to what we want. And it is also very clear people are fed up with our current system of hyperpartisan gerrymandering, in which legislative and congressional districts are always drawn to ensure perpetual Republican control of the Legislature and a majority of seats in Congress.

That’s not to say they want Democratic gerrymandering either; they don’t. They want, as the saying goes, a system where voters pick politicians – not the other way around.

The one we have now, which allows politicians to mostly create districts one party or another can’t possibly lose, isn’t democracy.

People have noticed and increasingly care – and here’s proof. Last fall, a genuinely grassroots group of citizens put together a coalition called Voters Not Politicians, and wrote a proposed state constitutional amendment.

It would end gerrymandering and turn redistricting over to a citizens’ panel that would include Republicans, Democrats, and independents – and require some support from all three groups for any reapportionment proposal to be approved.

They had to collect more than 315,000 valid signatures to get this on the November ballot. These days, almost nobody accomplishes that without paying circulators at least a dollar an autograph. Voters Not Politicians volunteers got 425,000 without paying a dime.

Republicans and special interest lobbyists were horrified. They know that if this gets on the ballot, it will pass overwhelmingly. A similar bill aimed at ending legislative gerrymandering got on the Ohio ballot three years ago, and got 71 percent of the vote.

It was clear the only way those who like the present system can save it was to turn to the courts. So last week, a group calling itself “Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution” filed a legal challenge with the Michigan Court of Appeals asking them to keep this off the ballot.

They claim this proposal is invalid, mainly because it would change more than one part of the state constitution. They say this would be “too disruptive to the … underpinnings of government.” They also assert Voters not Politicians is really trying a wholesale rewriting of Michigan’s constitution, and added a few more grounds as to why it should be disqualified, evidently on the theory that if they throw enough, something may stick.

Every poll shows that fewer and fewer of us have faith in our government and our leaders.

To me, their reasoning is absurd. But those who want to prevent fair districts from being drawn have a couple things going for them. Ten years ago, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down an amendment sponsored by the Michigan Democratic Party that would have changed many parts of the constitution, saying you couldn’t rewrite the constitution with one amendment.

Voters Not Politicians lawyers contend all theirs does is change one aspect of state government – redistricting. Maybe, but Republicans have a majority of 5 to 2 on the Michigan Supreme Court.

However, there is something I think every judge should consider:

Every poll shows that fewer and fewer of us have faith in our government and our leaders. If the courts now tell people who want to vote for change they won’t be allowed to, that sends a clear signal to everyone about what our democracy has come to be worth. I’m not sure that’s a signal any of us want to hear.

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.