Jocelyn Benson shares her elections expertise in update on redistricting



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

As Wayne State University Law School Dean Jocelyn Benson noted at a meeting of the Progressive Women’s Alliance (PWA) Tuesday, the cause of citizen redistricting had its carpe diem moment when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in June on Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission et al.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said that the effort of states to create nonpartisan citizen commissions authorized to draw voting district boundaries is not inconsistent with the U.S. Constution.

Noting that “Conflict of interest is inherent when ‘legislators dra[w] district[w]district lines that they ultimately have to run in,’” (quoted from a 2012 Yale Law Journal article by Bruce E. Cain), Ginsburg wrote:

“The people of Arizona turned to the initiative to curb the practice of gerrymandering and, thereby, to ensure that Members of Congress would have ‘an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people.’ The Federalist No. 57, at 350 (J. Madison)... The Elections Clause does not hinder that endeavor.”

The dissenting opinion in the 5-4 decision, by Chief Justice John Roberts, focuses on the language, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections ... shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.” How the term “Legislature” is to be construed is the crux of the matter.

The majority of justices regarded a body instituted by a voter-approved initiative to be a form of legislature, stating “...we hold that lawmaking power in Arizona includes the initiative process...”

This explicitly opens the door for other states to consider starting an initiative process to form a citizen commission to draw the boundaries. States such as Arizona and California have used the initiative process to substitute citizen commissions for elected officials in an attempt to eliminate the practice of gerrymandering, defined as “the dividing of a state, county, etc., into election districts so as to give one political party a majority in many districts while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible.”

The PWA’s speaker, Jocelyn Benson, is a firm believer that the right of every person to vote is the cornerstone of democracy. Benson speaks widely in Michigan, and was also the featured speaker for the 2014 Law Day Luncheon hosted by the Grand Rapids Bar and WMU-Cooley Law School. She received her J.D. from Harvard University Law School after graduating magna cum laude from Wellesley College, and when she was selected as Dean of Wayne Law became the youngest woman to lead a top 100 law school in U.S. history.

Benson, who also wrote State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process and ran herself for Michigan Secretary of State in 2010, explained that there are not many regulations on drawing district lines. The main Federal mandate is that all Congressional districts must contain very close to the same number of people.

“That means the legislature, where here in Michigan is who draws the lines, has a lot of leeway. You have people drawing their own districts to make sure they get elected.”

She pointed to a map of House District 76 brought to the meeting by State Rep. Winnie Brinks, who attended along with colleague Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright from Muskegon.
“Look at this,” Benson said, referring to the jagged edges and unusual shape. “It looks like something in an Atari game.”

Benson detailed the process by which California chooses who will be on its commission to ensure non-partisanship. Saying that in general districts developed by the states with such citizen commissions are deemed fair and withstand court challenges, she noted that it is not a partisan issue. It was the head of the College Republicans at Central Michigan University who won a 2011 competition to redraw lines held by her nonprofit Michigan Center for Election Law.

Saying, “My hope is that by the next time that happens in 2021 citizens  are empowered to draw those lines,” Benson let people know how they can weigh in.

Common Cause and the League of Women Voters of Michigan (LWV) are spearheading an effort in Michigan to explore putting such a measure before voters.

The LWV is holding town hall meetings around the state, though there is not one scheduled for Grand Rapids at this time. The closest are in Kalamazoo at the Public Library, 315 S. Rose on Oct. 5 at 6:30 p.m.; and on Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. at Holland City Hall, 270 S. River Ave.

Judy Karandjeff, LWV President, said in a statement,  “Our Town Halls will explore central questions, such as: What are the consequences of partisan drawn districts that favor one party over another?  Is there a better and fairer way to do this?  What are the alternatives?”

Benson suggested that PWA, with its nonpartisan mission, might want to host a public forum. Though PWA leaders have not yet officially expressed an interest, there are several members involved with a small group of interested parties meeting in Grand Rapids.

“The system is broken — we have elected officials picking out who votes for them rather than the voters picking out the elected officials. It just isn’t working,” said community activist Frank Lynn, a part of the group. “It permeates the system from the county on up.”

Christy McGillivray of Common Cause says that she was approached by some of the local citizens when they heard about the Supreme Court decision.

“We’re really working to expand the education campaign on this issue, and to reach out to community leaders so we can have as broad a citizen base as possible,” says McGillivray. “We’re holding community forums and talking to organizations. In fact, we’ll be making presentations in Grand Rapids this October.

“It needs to be grassroots, and it needs to be non-partisan,” she adds.

The Common Cause website, which has a number of involvement opportunities including signing a petition, is McGillivray says she welcomes inquiries emailed to

In the long run, Benson said Tuesday, redistricting is not the only pressing issue, but must be part of a process that includes removing barriers to voting (by, for example, allowing on-line registration) and getting secret money out of elections. “We have to see redistricting reform as part of a broader effort to make sure that our democracy is living up to the ideals of our founders,” she said.

common cause – there’s a group of us it was Dave Petroelje that contacted me but he was brought in by Cindy at Common Cause we’ve had a number of meetings in town, we’re setting up some meetings here now.

wrking with PWa? there are peope involved in the group in town that are involved with PWA. If they want to get involved – they can contact Christy and I hate to put my name out there, ultimately it will come back to me, there’s a viable group we’ll split it up amongst ourselves.

We have something scheduled Advocates for Senior Issues in October and planning to s=do soemthign with LINC soon.

The group working on it in the Grand Rapids area has presentations

“The system is broken, and we have elected officials picking out who votes for them rather than the voters picking out who will vote for who represents them. This just isn’t working,” said community activist Frank Lynn, who is part of a small group getting together to think about a redistricting initiative. “It permeates the system from the county on up.”

We’re really working to expand the education campaign and we’re actively working to reach out to community leaders so we can have as broad a citizen base as possible for our redistricting.we’ve been responding to common caiuse members who’ve contacted us.

So the League townhalls have been reaching out to us, the small group of people we are working, they were paying att to the Sup Ct decision regarding Arizona.
At Common cause we’re holding cmomunity forums, we’re talking with senior centers in october, working to reach out to existing organizations, let them know what the lay of the land is, Ppoliticians picking their voters instead of voters picking the politicians. the League is sotally run by volunteers so they’re holding townhall members of what the league in a partic arae not an intentioanl oversight.
can also sign a petition, on the website. Um I would say the most important thing we can do at this point, we need it be grassroots, we need it to be nonpartisan, everyone actually has networks they’re part of , if we can enc people that’s how wer’e going to actually
No decision has been made. The upside is that it’s a presiential yar, the downside is you don’t have as much time to build this very borad grassroots support
Shannon Gareet contact information - email it. I think Shannon she’s been hired to run these townshalls. Susan Smith.