Published in Crain’s Detroit Business– from Voters Not Politicians
Commentary: Citizens redistricting commission is working
“Remove partisanship from election administration”
By Nancy Wang
Nancy Wang is executive director of Voters Not Politicians
Published on December 10, 2021
As the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission moves toward completion of its work, those of us at Voters Not Politicians are pleased with its operations — particularly in comparison to how redistricting of congressional and legislative districts previously was conducted in our state and is still done in most states around the nation.
As we have seen in Michigan in the past, having politicians draw the districts is a prescription for devastating damage to democracy.
In Michigan in 2011, the Republican legislative leadership crafted districts behind closed doors with no input from residents. The districts drawn undermined democracy by giving Republicans a majority of seats, even in years when most voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates in the House, Senate and Congress.
That’s still the system across most of the nation.
In Illinois and Maryland, Democrats are drawing districts that will virtually guarantee them control for the next decade.
In Texas and Indiana, it’s Republicans who are using sophisticated computer systems to carve up the state for their benefit. Their gerrymandering will rig elections in these states for the next 10 years.
Against that backdrop, the work of the 13 members of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is a paragon of democracy.
The Voters Not Politicians constitutional amendment, approved by 61 percent of the state’s voters in 2018, is working.
Not perfectly. At Voters Not Politicians we strongly disagree with the commission’s decision to go behind closed doors at one meeting, apparently to discuss legal memos regarding how the federal Voting Rights Act might be interpreted.
We wrote the amendment to prohibit this kind of closed-door discussion. We expect this matter will be litigated. But it has only happened once, on one issue, and that’s far superior to past practices.
Our amendment, developed in public drafting sessions around the state and taking into account best practices from other states along with unique Michigan features, focused on keeping politicians out, transparency high, partisanship low and collaboration a standard.
Voters, not politicians: The random selection of members from a group of interested citizens who self-identified as being supporters of one of the two major parties or unaffiliated with either of those parties, while allowing top leaders from both parties to eliminate some, has worked well. Our commissioners are residents from across the state. They are far more representative of Michigan than the tiny cadre of consultants, Republican party leaders and lawmakers who made the decisions in 2011.
Open and transparent: We called for all meetings and discussions to be held openly and mandated public hearings before and after maps were drawn to allow maximum input from the public. With the one transgression discussed above, this has been a major success. Hundreds of people testified, and commissioners reacted to what they heard. Pulling back the curtain has given the commission credibility.
Partisan fairness: A key part of the amendment required districts be drawn without favoring any candidate or party. The commission has carefully considered measures of partisan fairness to inform its mapping decisions. It has balanced its other charges, including keeping an eye on communities of interest, the Voting Rights Act, communities’ boundaries and population variances. We are confident that these districts will finally let Michigan voters choose their politicians, based on the qualities and issues of the candidates, rather than having foregone outcomes based on politicians packing and cracking voter blocs.
Collaborative: In major matters the amendment required that at least some members of all three “buckets” of commissioners — Republican, Democratic and non-affiliated — be approving of final decisions. No one group, or even two groups, have been able to jam through decisions without the votes of the other. We expect that will continue as the final map selections are made.
The process has worked well, far better than our critics expected. Have some meetings been chaotic? Yes, and so is democracy. Will the partisan fairness measures used let elections be a marketplace of ideas? We believe the results will be far superior to having politicians draw districts.
Could the process be even more transparent? We would hope that future commissions will learn from the stern and appropriate bipartisan public outcry that followed the one time the commission closed its doors.
This process formed by citizens, approved by the electorate and supported against court challenges by judges in state and federal courts has stood up to its major test.
We await the maps, more convinced than ever that having voters, not politicians, draw election district lines has been one of the state’s most important and positive political reforms since our current state constitution was approved in 1963.
Nancy Wang is executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the citizens group that authored and campaigned for the successful passage of a constitutional amendment in 2018 creating an independent citizens redistricting commission.