Signatures submitted for Michigan redistricting initiative

Posted at 2:51 PM, Dec 18, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-18 21:24:34-05

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A group opposed to political gerrymandering submitted more than 425,000 signatures Monday for a ballot drive that would empower an independent commission to draw Michigan’s congressional and legislative districts, which backers said would make the once-a-decade process less partisan.

The Legislature now creates the maps, which are subject to a gubernatorial veto and a possible legal challenge.

Katie Fahey, president and treasurer of the Voters Not Politicians ballot committee, said the current system “could not get more partisan. We have people locking themselves behind closed doors to draw these lines for their own favor instead of listening to the people of Michigan and trying to create actual fair elections that hold them accountable to us as citizens.”

If at least 315,654 signatures are deemed valid, the constitutional amendment would be added to the November 2018 statewide ballot barring a lawsuit. It faces opposition from Republicans, who oversaw redistricting in 2011 and 2001 and who control the Legislature and governorship.

Though Fahey said the measure is supported by Democrats, Republicans and independents, the Michigan Republican Party said the ballot drive was led by a “Democrat front group” and has no GOP leaders.

“Voters Not Politicians wants to take the redistricting process out of the hands of our elected representatives and hand it to a panel of bureaucrats who will in no way be accountable to Michigan voters,” chairman Ron Weiser said in a statement. “This proposal will lead to our citizens having less say in who represents them.”

The all-volunteer ballot drive defied the odds by not having to pay for signatures — a rarity in Michigan outside of anti-abortion ballot drives that have enjoyed broad support within churches and organizational backing from Right to Life and other groups. Gathering in a cold rain near the Capitol, more than 100 jubilant volunteers passed boxes of petitions up a ramp leading to the state Bureau of Elections.

Gerrymandering has led to seats that are drawn to guarantee as many comfortable districts as possible for the party in power. The majority party, which was the GOP after the 2010 and 2000 population counts, pads its advantage by translating its votes into a greater share of victories.

The practice is under scrutiny for diminishing the number of centrist lawmakers and furthering political polarization, though some experts point to other factors such as people self-sorting into like-minded geographical communities.

“When you have gerrymandered districts and uncompetitive elections, you have politicians that feel like they just can keep their job forever without really having to answer to the people. That’s a big rot at the core of democracy,” said Kyle Richardson, an engineer by training who is between jobs and who helped gather signatures in Detroit.

Under the proposal, a commission of citizens who meet certain qualifications would handle redistricting. There would be four Democrats, four Republicans and five members with no affiliation with either major party — drawn at random by the secretary of state, including from members of the general public who apply and applicants who respond to a mailing to 10,000 voters. The four legislative leaders could strike some applicants from the pool. Elected officials, candidates, legislative employees, lobbyists, certain state employees — and their relatives — would be ineligible from serving.

The panel would be prohibited from providing a “disproportionate advantage” to a political party, using “accepted measures of partisan fairness.”

In most states, the legislatures have primary control of redistricting. Lawmakers control legislative lines in 37 states and congressional lines in 42, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The U.S. Supreme Court in September heard arguments on whether to impose limits on extreme partisan gerrymandering in a Wisconsin case that could have implications nationally.