The U.S. Supreme Court began its new term last week with a case that’s destined to make history. For the first time, the court will decide if partisan gerrymandering is, in fact, constitutional.
In the meantime, a citizens group in Michigan is hoping to bypass the traditional legislative process and put the job back in the hands of the people.
In 2011, an interesting political fault line formed down the middle of Lake Michigan.
Still struggling from the Great Recession, Michigan found itself the only state in the country to lose population in the 2010 census. When lawmakers re-drew their political district map, the Wolverine State lost one seat in Congress.
On the west side of the lake, the GOP took control of the Wisconsin Legislature. But when their time for mapmaking rolled around, Democrats cried foul. They saw the huge swaths of Republican red as an overtly partisan power grab.
A legal battle ensued, one which now lies in the marbled halls of the Supreme Court.
“The fact that it’s the before the Court is really important; that we’re finally getting a judicial review of this issue,” says Walt Sorg. He’s a board member with the group Voters Not Politicians. “The basic argument is whether it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, because effectively, gerrymandering means your vote isn’t worth as much as somebody else’s vote, based on where you live.”
Sorg is watching the Wisconsin case, where a 5-4 decision looks likely, with Justice Anthony Kennedy potentially tipping the scales as the expected swing vote.
But even if the plaintiffs win, Sorg does not expect the Court to destroy gerrymandering once and for all.
“All they’re going to do is send it back to the Wisconsin legislature and say, ‘you’ve got a problem; fix it,” he says. “What we’re saying is, we’re going to fix the problem.”
Voters Not Politicians wants to see Michigan establish an independent commission that would bring redistricting out of the backrooms in Lansing. Their plan would appoint 13 members consisting of Republicans, Democrats and Independents. A seven-vote majority could pass a redistricting map, but only after an extensive public hearing process.
Sorg chides the shape of three GOP-held Michigan congressional districts: the 4th, the 7th and the 8th. He says they’re designed to bypass large Democratic strongholds such as Ann Arbor, which lies adjacent to the 7th in the 12th district.
Bob LaBrant, an attorney and former longtime legal counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, dismisses the notion that something insidious is going on.
“They (Voters Not Politicians) use this phrase, ‘voters should choose their legislators; not legislators choose their voters,’” LaBrant notes. “Well, in reality, this is based on county boundaries, it’s based on city boundaries, it’s based on township boundaries. Nobody’s choosing anything. They’re basically stuck with where they live.”
LaBrant says the Michigan Supreme Court built these standards along well-established geopolitical lines specifically to prevent partisan gerrymandering. He takes issue with Voters Not Politicians for creating what he views as a vague new standard: “communities of interest.”
“I know what a township is, I know what a city is, I know what a county is...but I don’t know what a ‘community of interest’ is,” LaBrant argues. “And that’s probably the reason they chose it, because it could mean anything.”
Walt Sorg offers an explanation.
“You could say we have an ethnic community or religious community or an economic community that should be together,” says Sorg. “For example, agriculture. Right now, agriculture really kind of gets the shaft in redistricting because the ag communities are splintered out and they don’t have nearly the influence that they probably should have.”
Sorg envisions Michigan having a symmetrical political process. In other words, a delegation in Washington and a legislature in Lansing whose percentages mirror the total number of votes.
“Right now, it’s way out of whack,” he asserts.
Voters Not Politicians is in the midst of a petition drive to put a citizens redistricting commission on the ballot in 2018. So far the group has collected more than 200,000 signatures. It’s an all-volunteer campaign without the paid circulators that so often mark the modern petition industry.
Attorney Bob LaBrant commends the group on its ground game. But he has his reservations.
“In all likelihood they’re going to be successful in collecting those signatures,” he concedes. “Whether they can survive a court challenge is something else, and we’ll see.”
In total, Voters Not Politicians must turn in more than 315,000 signatures by February to qualify for the ballot. Board member Walt Sorg believes the group could achieve that goal before the end of the year.