The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, August 10, 2018

Redistricting ballot proposal may capsize politics as usual

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - With conservative lawmakers enjoying majorities in Lansing and in Washington D.C., organized labor has had little chance of moving a pro-worker agenda.

Evidence of this is the passage of statewide anti-labor issues like right to work and prevailing wage repeal, which were able to be adopted by the Legislature, pass judicial review and be enshrined into law.

But a decision handed down on July 31 by the Michigan Supreme Court has cracked the door open for what could be a massive change in how the state is ruled politically. On July 31, a 4-3 decision by the state's High Court allows a proposal to be placed on the Nov. 6 statewide ballot, that if passed, would create a new public panel -  evenly divided politically - that would be responsible for re-drawing the state's legislative districts every 10 years.

"Let's put it this way, the situation with how legislative lines are drawn can't get any worse for the state's working people than it is right now," said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. "So this could be an improvement, and maybe a tremendous improvement. But I still have concerns over what should be obvious to everyone: who is going to be among the new group of people who will be drawing the lines if this is successful in November?"

A different makeup of the Legislature could have changed history for organized labor in Michigan. A few more worker-friendly lawmakers in the state House could have flipped the 56-53 vote that repealed the state's prevailing wage law in June. The same goes for the 2012 proposal to make Michigan a right-to-work state, which was adopted by a 58-52-vote in the state House. Most Republicans voted for both measures, all Democrats voted against.

Michigan is currently one of 37 states that allow the state Legislature to redraw district lines, also known as gerrymandering. The process has resulted, predictably, with the party that's in power making all the decisions on how the lines are drawn. But with the greater use of computer databases, data on voter predictability and crazy-shaped map lines that only a political scientist could love, the process has become even more effective for stuffing voters of one party into a smaller number of districts, which tilts the playing field in other districts in favor of candidates supported by the party drawing the lines.

"Michigan’s district maps, redrawn by a then-new Republican majority in 2011, are among the most skewed in the country," says the New York Times, in an editorial titled "A Michigan ballot initiative points the way to reforming gerrymandering." Of course, if Democrats were in power, they would likely do the same type of excessive gerrymandering. The Michigan solution to excessive gerrymandering is being closely watched across the country.

In 2016, President Trump won Michigan by less than 11,000 votes out of 4.8 million votes that were cast, but the state and congressional boundaries don't reflect the political evenness of the state. The GOP holds a 9-5 advantage among the state's congressional seats, and has huge majorities in the state House (63-47) and Senate (27-11). 

Despite a 5-2 conservative majority on the state Supreme Court, two GOP-appointed justices joined Democratic-appointed justices in allowing the petition language to appear on the statewide ballot in November. The push for changes in how gerrymandering is done is not necessarily a partisan issue. John Pudner of the conservative group Take Back Our Republic said their poll indicates Michigan Republicans support, by a 15-point margin, setting up an independent political commission to re-draw district maps.

Said Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber: “Michigan is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to partisan gerrymandering. If we want the voices of our members to be heard, and elected officials who will protect the freedoms of working people, then we need a process where the voters pick their representatives, not the other way around. We need to shift the power back to the people. It’s the only way we’ll be able to create an economy that works for everyone.”

A nonpartisan group called Voters Not Politicians led the charge to fix what it calls Michigan's "broken redistricting process," through a constitutional amendment.

If voters approve the amendment, a commission will be established and comprised of a 13-member redistricting commission with four Democrats, four Republicans and five independent members who are not affiliated with any major political party, to redraw district lines beginning in 2020. 

"We believe that given a choice between the status quo our opposition favors, where politicians and lobbyists operate behind closed doors to manipulate districts for partisan benefit — and our proposal,  which puts citizens in charge and mandates full transparency with the public — voters will support Voters Not Politicians in November," said the group's founder and executive director Katie Fahey, to The Detroit News. 

According to the plan set forth by Voters Not Politicians, this is how the district-drawing panel would be chosen: 

"The Secretary of State will mail applications to at least 10,000 randomly selected registered voters. In addition, any registered Michigan voter can apply to serve on the Commission. Applications may ask for things like name, address where registered to vote, basic demographic information, and political party affiliation.

"From the qualified applicants, the Secretary of State’s office will randomly select 200 finalists: 60 Republicans, 60 Democrats, and 80 who are not affiliated with those parties. These applicants will be selected from demographic and geographic categories so that when the 200 finalists are drawn randomly, they will reflect the geographic and demographic makeup of Michigan. The majority and minority leaders in the Michigan House and Senate will be able to strike up to 5 applications each.

"The Secretary of State will then randomly select the final Commission members from the remaining pool of applicants."

The petition language was strongly opposed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, who along with others argued that the establishment of a new panel to draw the legislative lines was too-encompassing a change to the state's Constitution. "The Michigan Chamber is very disappointed with the state Supreme Court decision that the redistricting ballot proposal met the legal requirements to appear on the November general election ballot,” said Michigan Chamber President and CEO Rich Studley. “Unfortunately, Michiganders are now left to wonder what the rules are for future petition drives and ballot proposals.”

In the end, Fahey said the issue comes down to this: “Do you think voters should choose their politicians, or do you think politicians should choose their voters?”