Advocates say redistricting process should be a nonpartisan effort

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

When politician and  governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry drew a voting district to favor his party, the Democratic-Republicans in the early 1800s, little did he know that he would gain lasting notoriety. The practice now known as gerrymandering was an amalgam of his name with the odd shape he and colleagues drew, which looked a lot like a salamander.

At an educational session held in East Lansing in February, activist Katie Fahey tossed a pink salamander to  one of the 400-plus attendees just to drive the point home.

Gerrymandering refers to the practice of the party in power creating voting districts so that the greatest number of districts in the state will vote for that party, and conversely so the votes of those in the opposing party, often through being clustered in smaller concentrations, have less weight.

In Michigan, the responsibility for redrawing the districts falls to the legislature, and occurs after every census.

Four groups sponsored the session: the Michigan Election Reform Alliance, Count MI Vote (Fahey’s organization), a group from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan, and the Michigan League of Women Voters (LWV).

The LWV, a nonpartisan group, has been holding similar events to educate the public since 2015, approximately 70 in all.

It was in 2015 that the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the efforts of states to create nonpartisan citizen commissions authorized to draw these boundaries is not inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution. (See Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission et al.)

Since that energizing session in Lansing, Grand Rapids-area resident and  Aquinas College sustainable business graduate Fahey has officially registered an organization intending to put an initiative on the 2018 ballot. The website of the group, Voters Not Politicians, says it wants to amend the state constitution “for a citizen-controlled system of drawing voting maps for legislative and congressional districts,” but the exact wording has not yet been determined.

To help find the best possible  proposal, Voters Not Politicians will  hold several listening sessions around Michigan.

Grand Rapids is the place for one of these sessions on March 16, to be held at the Donnelly Center of Aquinas College, 157 Woodward Lane, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Fahey acknowledges that this is not business as usual. “A lot of groups who might be willing to support us with funding say they want to see the final proposal first, but we just don’t feel comfortable writing it without giving people a chance to have their say,” she states.

“We started out because leading up to the 2016 election there were so many people who felt really disconnected from the system. You grow up and you think my most important civic duty is to vote as long as I’m educated about voting. But that’s not even accurate — your vote is manipulated by those you vote for.”

Patrick Levine Rose, an East Lansing-based attorney who has been involved in election reform for decades, is cautiously optimistic that all of the groups concerned about redistricting will come together in support. “Obviously, it’s too early to tell, there’s no way to know exactly. But I know that the different groups have been talking,” he says.

Rose, who says he “took the first election law class offered by an American law school,” worked for Senator Carl Levin and was the treasurer of Common Cause, which advocated for redistricting reform before the census in 1990 and in 2000. He also benefited from having an office right down the hall from election law expert Tom Downs, who was the Vice President of Michigan’s 1963 Constitutional Convention.

An appellate attorney, Rose serves on the board of the Michigan Election Reform Alliance, a small election reform advocacy group.

He adds, and Fahey agrees, that there are a great number of other  reforms needed in order to make sure the ideal of one person one vote is achieved, but both feel that this is of great importance.

“It’s not a silver bullet,” Fahey  says, “but we started out online with people not being real specific, just desperate to change the political system and there’s been so much excitement about this. Hopefully in the future we’ll move on to other things, but for this, we’re already seeing such a huge interest.”

At the East Lansing session, Michigan LVW President Judy Karandjeff used the last national election results to indicate the level of unfairness gerrymandering generates. “In the recent election,” she said, “the Republicans actually got 48% of the vote and the Democrats 47%, but when you look at the number of Congressional seats you can see the results of gerrymandering. Republicans got 9 seats and the Democrats five.”

She added, “The U.S. constitution requires that the seats for the U.S. House of Representatives be divided according to the population census. But it doesn’t say how — that’s left up to the individual states.”

Some states address this by having very strong guidelines for the process, but this has not been as effective as the best of the citizen redistricting states. Other suggestions have been to have the lines drawn by a computer and to deny legislators access to detailed party affiliation information.

Presenters, which also included the Michigan ACLU’s Walt Sorg, strongly recommended that people educate themselves by visiting the Brennan Center at NYU School of Law (www.brennancenter.org), which has a large library of research and opinion on the issue of voting rights and elections.

Fahey told the audience, “This is completely non-partisan, so if you’re interested regardless of your party affiliation, volunteer to do something.”

Indeed, she would like to get the word out that lawyers are very welcome. Though Voters Not Politicians will be hiring a law firm, attorneys who are passionate about the issue are more than welcome. For more information, visit  www.votersnotpoliticians.com, or come to the Grand Rapids session on March 16 detailed earlier in this article.
 

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