California redistricting commissioners share their experiences

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Photo by Cynthia Price

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

The principle of “one person one vote” is strongly ingrained in the average person’s view of how the United States works, but Grand Rapidian Katie Fahey feels strongly that gerrymandering jeopardizes that principle.

Gerrymandering is the practice of politicians in power drawing voting districts in ways that maximize the voters they know will support them and marginalizes those who won’t. It goes back almost as far as the nation does — its namesake, Elbridge Gerry, was the fifth vice president of the U.S.; he signed a bill instituting the practice in 1812 while Governor of Massachusetts.

The remainder of the name comes from the charge that one of the districts was so convoluted it looked like a salamander, and “slaying the gerrymander” or even “slaying the dragon” are terms used when a state seeks to have citizen redistricting commissions draw the lines instead of politicians. Such commissions, composed of evenly balanced partisan and non-partisan representatives, are thought to offer much improved voting district maps.

Considering all this, Fahey embarked on a journey to do something about gerrymandering.

Following a public-input period to help her team think through how best to shape the ballot proposal (as reported in the Grand Rapids Legal News 3/3/17), Fahey put together a formidable 4000-person team to collect the 315,654 signatures needed. In Dec. 2017, Voters Not Politicians turned over approximately 450,000 signatures to the Secretary of State.

The SOS office still has to certify the signatures, but as Fahey points out, Voters Not Politicians was scrupulous in following all the rules, so it is highly likely to be on the November ballot.

But Michigan is not the first state to make this attempt. Recently, members of one of the states where the citizen redistricting ballot was successful visited Michigan to talk about the process.

Voters approved California Proposition 11 in November 2008, and the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC) began. A 2010 measure reaffirmed that “California’s Congressional Districts be drawn by the [CRC] in a non-partisan, open, and transparent process.”

The visit by commissioners Connie Malloy, Jeanne Raya and Peter Yao was made possible when the CRC received the 2017 Award for Public Engagement in Government from The Ash Center at Harvard University. The $100,000 that comes with that is to support “the replication and dissemination of the initiative,” so the three, all staunch supporters of the process, set out on a road trip. “And they chose to come to Michigan first,” says Fahey.

Malloy, Raya and Yao told large audiences at sessions held in Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Troy, that when the commission started in 2011 (after the census), they were not given much guidance. Politicians, as could be expected, opposed the process, so the legislature gave little support.

The California State Auditor randomly selected the first eight members  of the CRC from a pool of the most eligible applicants divided into sub-pools of Democrats (three were chosen), Republicans (three) and those who registered as “Decline-to-State” or with another political party (two), and who had survived elimination by legislators allowed by the statute. Then those eight commissioners chose the remaining six, along the same balanced partisan lines as above, with a view to the CRC reflecting the demographics of the state.

In Michigan, Fahey says, the Secretary of State’s office will oversee the process. Drawn from two different sources, a pool of eligible applicants – weighted to ensure it reflects the state’s demographics – will be narrowed down randomly. The final commission will comprise four Republicans, four Democrats (or four from each of the two parties receiving the most votes in the previous gubernatorial race) and five who affiliate with neither party.

The California commissioners had to get a whole new agency up and running, figure out where the $3 million budget would go and how to spend it in line with state guidance, how to get the maps actually drawn, and what criteria to use in shaping the districts – all in three months. They then had eight months to draw the maps.

The criteria include such factors as equal population (actually a U.S. Constitution requirement), compliance with the Voting Rights Act, and respecting the boundaries of cities, counties, neighborhoods and communities of interest.
Districts must also be contiguous so that all parts of the district are connected to each other.

Ultimately, the commission decided to avoid getting any information about residents’ party affiliations. They spent a daunting amount of time reaching out to the public to understand communities of interest, conducting hearings that would often last five hours or more, reading emails “in the grocery store line, waiting at the doctors’ office, everywhere,” according to Malloy.

Release of the map was met by court challenges, but it survived all. Now, the state has been rewarded by electoral contests that studies show are among the most competitive in the U.S.

The CRC also takes an interest in national cases about redistricting, and has submitted an amicus brief in several. These include the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court consideration of Gill v. Whitford, where the question is basically whether citizens can challenge a legislator-drawn map.
 

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