A counterpoint to this essay can be found here.
If the Michigan AFL-CIO or the Michigan Chamber of Commerce were each drafting a proposed constitutional amendment to “reform” redistricting, it would be met with media derision, with each eventual proposal seen as favoring one political party over the other.
But, when the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network announce that they are part of a Collaborative working to draft an amendment, no similar skepticism has yet arisen.
Perhaps some skepticism is in order. As the Michigan Campaign Finance Network so often says of other interest groups: “Follow the money.”
It’s their close connection to the Joyce Foundation headquartered in Chicago – which once had Barack Obama on their board – that has escaped media scrutiny. Grants from the Joyce Foundation provided much of the funding to launch the Michigan Redistricting Collaborative, the main group pushing for reform. Other groups in the Collaborative include a “Who’s Who” of liberal advocacy and lobbying groups, including: ACLU, Michigan Citizen Action, Michigan Education Association and the NAACP.
The Joyce Foundation has also provided substantial financial grants over the years to the League of Women Voters of Michigan, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the Michigan Non-Profit Association, and Common Cause to pursue their individual advocacy programs in voting, campaign finance, and judicial elections. They have become a “reform” industry.
Jocelyn Benson has characterized herself as a champion of redistricting “reform.” In 2010, she was the Democratic Party candidate for Secretary of State. In 2008, she supported Mark Brewer’s ballot question “Reform Michigan Government Now!” – a proposal that was initially called a non-partisan effort, but was later exposed as a scheme designed to help Democrats. The proposal was eventually ruled ballot-ineligible.
That Benson-backed proposal had an independent redistricting commission component, and it required a specific number of competitive and swing districts. It also introduced “communities of interest” as a new redistricting standard. The proposed amendment even went so far as to ban legal challenges to a commission-adopted plan in state court. Now Dean of Wayne State University Law School, Benson served recently as a judge of a Common Cause redistricting writing competition.
The individuals and groups who claim to be drafting an amendment can hardly be called non-partisans nor without agendas.
Their first decision is who qualifies as an “independent” to serve on the commission. After all, it is the independent commissioner who will be the tiebreaker between the partisan commissioners when a redistricting plan is adopted.
In a state without partisan voter registration, does simply the absence of a record of contributing to a political party or running for office in a partisan election make a person an independent?
Most important, it’s these self-styled non-partisans of the Collaborative who will decide what criteria an independent redistricting commission will follow in drawing district lines.
Experience from other states with independent redistricting commissions teaches us to beware of any proposal that allows for the breaking of county, city or township boundary lines in order to promote “communities of interest.” The reform community somehow never defines that term because, in states like California, Colorado and Arizona, it is the loophole that gives the commission majority a license to gerrymander – all in the name of “communities of interest.”
Here’s how that loophole works: In these states, public hearings were conducted with citizens lining up to describe various “communities of interest” that needed to be reflected in the final map. In reality, acceptance of a “community of interest” was used to help one political party and harm the other. This undefined standard allows a party to figure out what map they want to end up with and then reverse-engineer it – first determine what "community of interest" testimony serves that desired result, and then pack the public hearing with supporters.
Another requirement to beware of are “reformers” who demand that an independent redistricting commission draw “competitive districts.” How is this possible in Detroit districts that historically end up with 85 percent or higher Democratic Party majorities?
Drawing competitive districts is a criteria that is also designed to allow a commission to disregard county, city and township boundary lines – a requirement of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in 1982 – in order to create districts without any local governmental geographic basis. This loophole is created to have districts end up with reduced 59-62 percent majorities, rather than 85-plus percent districts. So-called “competitive districts” disperse some of the urban vote into outlying suburban and rural areas. By design, those out-lying districts will have a higher Democratic vote that may translate into more Democratic seats in Lansing. This is their hidden agenda.
The Joyce Foundation-funded coalition of progressive, non-partisan non-profits is in the process of drafting a proposed independent redistricting commission amendment. Remember the devil is in the details. Do not assume the details will be benign.
The next idea is not necessarily the best idea. For Michigan’s “reform” industry, an independent redistricting commission that draws lines based on undefined or manufactured “communities of interest” gives them an opportunity to scrap the 33-year-old “Apol Standards".
The Supreme Court-ordered “Apol Standards” say districts need to be compact and contiguous. Counties serve as the basic building block in constructing districts. County lines are not to be broken except to prevent a population divergence of plus-minus five percent. If necessary to break a county line, the fewest number of cities or townships must be shifted into a new district. If a county is entitled to more than one district, city and townships lines must be respected. If a city is entitled to more than one district, the districts must be compact and within a population divergence of 98-102 percent.
Abandoning precise, almost mechanical rules for an “eye of the beholder,” the “communities of interest” standard ultimately will return Michigan to an era of its most egregious gerrymander, the 1972 Hatcher-Kleiner Plan, where equal population between districts was the only requirement. Political subdivision boundaries were ignored and oddly-shaped districts the norm.
The next idea should be to keep the Apol Standards.
Bob LaBrant is former general counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and currently senior counsel for The Sterling Corporation.