Partisan Attempt to Kill Anti-Gerrymandering Measure Fails in Michigan

The Michigan Supreme Court in a 4-3 ruling Tuesday rejected a constitutional challenge brought by a GOP-backed group and the state attorney general to remove an initiative from the November ballot that would institute an independent redistricting commission to redraw state electoral districts.

“It is not a judge’s role to philosophize a theory of government. Rather, we are stewards of the people and must faithfully abide by the decisions they make through the laws they adopt. We accomplish this by adhering to the plain meaning of the text of those laws. Here, that approach leads us to conclude that a voter-initiated amendment under Const 1963, art 12, § 2 is permissible if it does not significantly alter or abolish the form or structure of our government, making it tantamount to creating a new constitution. VNP’s proposal surpasses these hurdles and is a permissible voter-initiated amendment under Article 12, § 2.” – Michigan Supreme Court, Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution v. Secretary of State

The nonpartisan campaign Voters Not Politicians garnered 425,000 signatures to put their initiative (Proposition 2) on the ballot. The proposal calls for a commission made up of 4 Republicans, 4 Democrats, and 5 independents to redraw electoral maps instead of the legislature.

Proposition 2 was certified for the November ballot, but was immediately challenged by the group, Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution. The group relied on mostly legal technicalities to convince the court that the measure did not meet constitutional requirements to appear on the ballot because it fundamentally alters the structure of government. The Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the challenge in June.

Now, the Michigan Supreme Court has affirmed the lower court’s ruling, allowing voters to decide the future of redistricting in their state.

“Our state Constitution begins with ‘All political power is inherent in the people.’ The court’s decision upholds our right as citizens to petition our government for positive change,” said Katie Fahey, founder and executive director of Voters Not Politicians.

“Hundreds of thousands of voters signed their name to have the chance to bring the redistricting process out in the open. Michigan voters are ready for a transparent redistricting process, where election district lines represent the people — not special interests. It’s time voters choose their politicians, not the other way around. Our volunteers, donors, and partners are ecstatic that our proposal will be on the ballot Nov. 6.”

A Little Background: The Plaintiffs

Despite its name, Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution isn’t made up of very many citizens. In fact, it’s not really much of an organization. It is funded by Autocam CEO John C. Kennedy, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and Fair Lines America, and has a Facebook page.

One of its financiers, Fair Lines America, also has practically no online presence. It has a Twitter account that has only been active since July 18, and that’s about it. However, it did lead a workshop on redistricting for the conservative-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council which has ties with Republican-affiliated PACs and networks.

The P.O. box Fair Lines America used for the contribution filing has also been linked to dozens of Republican super PACs, including some that ran anti-Donald Trump ads during the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

So it appears Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution is not so much comprised of everyday citizens as it is a handful of groups with an invested interest in protecting their party’s interests.

The Legal Challenge

The Michigan Supreme Court took up the case in July after a lower court rejected the plaintiffs’ attempt to remove Voter Not Politicians’ measure from the November ballot the previous month. The main legal argument against the ballot measure relied on the most stringent of legal technicalities.

There were a number of legal challenges at play but this case mostly came down to whether or not the anti-gerrymandering measure was a constitutional amendment, as Voters Not Politicians asserts, or a general revision to the constitution, which would require a constitutional convention.

What’s the difference? Apparently, according to the Michigan Supreme Court, an amendment is a correction of details while a general revision suggests a fundamental change.

Here is the thing: The Voters Not Politicians initiative would not be as big of a change to the constitution as one might think. In fact, according to the Detroit Free Press, the 1963 state constitution (still in force) calls for an 8-member commission evenly split among the two major parties (4 Republicans, 4 Democrats) to redraw districts — not the legislature. In fact, it doesn’t grant the legislature any redistricting power.

As one might imagine — given its makeup — the commission deadlocked often and the Legislature has redrawn the lines the last two censuses in response to a judicial remedy. Still, the commission is in the constitution, and changing the number from 8 to 13 and adding 5 independent commissioners wouldn’t fundamentally change constitutional roles or the structure of government.

The majority opinion of the Michigan Supreme Court concluded with this as well:

“The present Constitution does not accord the Legislature any role in the redistricting or apportionment process. Instead, like VNP’s proposal, a commission is placed in charge. The commissions are materially similar. Both are charged with drawing a redistricting plan based on various guidelines. And while the guidelines have changed, as explained above, VNP’s proposal actually reflects many of the same standards currently used.”

“If anything, VNP’s proposal is an attempt to correct the constitutional deficiencies so that the basicdesign of the 1963 Constitution—which created an independent redistricting commission—can be implemented,” the majority adds. “We cannot reasonably conclude that this effort to revivify and improve upon a feature of the present Constitution amounts to a substantial alteration in the form or structure of our government.”

Voters Not Politicians is a testament to the strength of grassroots efforts to reform our democratic process. It started as a single Facebook post and turned into a nonpartisan redistricting initiative that gained ballot access with the support of over 400,000 Michigan voters.

Now, it’s up to voters to decide who should have the authority to redraw district lines. They will be able to vote on Proposition 2 in the midterm general election on November 6.