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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Rigging the System

May 4, 2018

DETROIT– What if you had a cause so popular that hundreds of thousands of people flocked to sign petitions to get it on the ballot?

Political scientists, those fighting for clean government, and editorial boards were overwhelmingly supportive. The citizens’ grass-roots movement quickly got more than enough signatures to qualify.

But then, what if, after all that, the special interests went to the courts, and prevented the people from voting on it?

That hasn’t happened yet – but it easily might. We’re talking about the Voters Not Politicians proposed constitutional amendment, designed to eliminate outrageous gerrymandering.

More on what’s precisely happening in a moment. But first, a little background. If you ever want to get a state constitutional amendment on the Michigan ballot, plan on spending at least a million dollars –just for starters.

You have to draft the amendment itself, and have the language describing it, the language that will appear on the petitions you must circulate, approved by the Board of State Canvassers.

Then, if they give you the seal of approval, you and your team have six months to collect a minimum of 315,654 valid signatures. Naturally, some are always not valid. People sign twice, or forget what county they live in, so you better plan on getting at least 100,000 extra, because the state will check a random sample of them.

By the way, it isn’t easy to collect that many signatures for anything; it means stopping and bothering a lot of people.

So when most special interests want to get something on the ballot, they pay collectors, often $2 or $3 per signature. That’s a million dollars right there, just to — maybe — get on the ballot.

That’s not what happened with Voters Not Politicians, VNP for short. They started with an ad hoc group of citizen volunteers, got an amendment approved that would turn redistricting over to a panel made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents. They would hold public hearings on any redistricting plan — and to be adopted, any plan would have to get votes from every group.

VNP had no money to pay petition gathers, so they used enthusiastic volunteers – and collected an astonishing 425,000 signatures before Christmas, without paying for even one.

When samples were tested, they were found to be 92 percent valid. It began to seem extremely likely that the days of Michigan’s extreme partisan gerrymandering were coming to an end. A similar bill designed to end legislative gerrymandering made it to the Ohio ballot in 2015 – and passed with 71 percent of the vote.

While some Republicans, including former U.S. Rep Joe Schwarz and former State Sen. Patty Birkholz support VNP, others tried to portray it as just a ploy by the Democratic Party.

Some wondered whether Michigan Republicans had brought this on themselves by drawing districts where anyone could see the gerrymandering was ridiculously extreme.

In several recent cycles, Democrats have gotten a majority of the vote for Congress, but Republicans got nine seats to their five.

The state senate is the most gerrymandered of all.

In one recent election, Democrats got more of the total popular vote cast — but Republicans won 26 seats to the Democrats’ 12.

Knowing they are unlikely to prevail at the polls, Republicans are trying to beat VNP in the courts. A GOP front group called Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution has asked the Michigan Court of Appeals to keep it off the ballot.

They are arguing that the bill would alter several different sections of Michigan’s constitution at once, which is not permitted.

Ten years ago, Michigan’s Supreme Court struck down a much more complex bill that would have changed nearly a third of the 1963 constitution, saying an amendment could only change one thing.

The Citizens Protecting group, led by former GOP counsel Eric Doster and longtime Republican strategist Bob LaBrant, is expected to argue that what VNP is doing is the same thing.

Jim Lancaster, the attorney for Voters Not Politicians, argues it is anything but. “Our proposal affects only one aspect of state government: Redistricting,” he said.

That will be decided by the courts, and if it reaches the Michigan Supreme Court, the group trying to kill reform may have an advantage. Republicans have a 5-2 majority, and one of the lawyers for Citizens Protecting is former Chief Justice Robert Young.

Katie Fahey, the executive director of Voters Not Politicians, insists that this is not a partisan movement.

“Partisan gerrymandering is wrong. It’s wrong in Maryland, where Democrats have done it, and it’s wrong here in Michigan, where Republicans have rigged the system,” she said.

Beyond the politics of this issue, however, there is another troubling question. Polls for years have shown a steady loss of confidence in government at all levels, especially federal and state.

This is an issue that people are deeply excited about, and where hundreds of thousands have played by the rules to put it on the ballot.

If those in favor of rigging the system are able to use the courts to thwart them, what will that do for faith in democracy?

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

May 3, 2018 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve Harry // May 4, 2018 at 11:19 am

    No question about it: The GOP is a threat to democracy.

  • 2 Deem Boldyreff // May 4, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    Why would we want to take anything away from those elected and give it to a group of nonelected individuals. The commission would quickly become part of the State bureaucracy aligned with the University consultants. The use of total vote argument just reflects to Democrat vote of the large cities.

  • 3 John Q. Public // May 5, 2018 at 2:03 pm


    Why don’t you ask Rick Snyder that question? He (not the first one, but certainly prolifically) runs the executive branch using precisely that method.

  • 4 jean kozek // May 8, 2018 at 9:33 pm

    On other occasions the MI Republican Party has disrespected the will of its Michigan voters. Emergency managers? Straight party ticket? Its behavior is both undemocratic and, now, a threat to the concept that each vote counts. This is no group that I can recognize. And a group that deserves no votes from anyone.

  • 5 David Waymire // May 11, 2018 at 9:58 am

    I’m working with the Voters Not Politicians campaign. Our legal team, led by former Ingham Circuit Judge Peter Houk, is confident we have the legal high ground on all issues. Houk’s involvement is important because Ingham County judges used to hear most first round elections challenges before court rules were changed a few years ago. We look forward to hearing how those supporting the current system can defend having politicians working in back rooms manipulate the process to create partisan districts … as opposed to the Voters Not Politicians proposal, where citizens will be required to handle all matters in public, and partisan gain is prohibited in the drawing of districts that still must comply with the Apol standards.

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