WMU-Cooley panel reflects on new Michigan redistricting process

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The WMU-Cooley Law Review annual  symposium held Oct. 22 focused on a hot topic: redistricting in general, and the Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC) approved overwhelmingly (61%-39%) by Michigan voters last November in particular.

Hope Finney, the Law Review’s executive symposium editor, introduced three highly knowledgeable panelists: Nancy Wang, the current executive director of Voters Not Politicians, which from the beginning spearheaded the ballot initiative resulting in the new redistricting process; Matthew Levin, legislative

policy manager for the Michigan Department of State, who works for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and is charged with setting up the CRC; and Mark Brewer, a well-known attorney who chaired the Michigan Democratic Party 1995-2013 and has been involved in voting and election law since the 1980s.

A fourth panelist, Sharon Dolente of the ACLU of Michigan, could not attend. Dolente led the team that wrote  the 2018 “Promote the Vote” ballot initiative, which also passed by a large margin.

WMU-Cooley Professor Devin Schindler, who moderated, first gave a brief history of gerrymandering (the practice of drawing legislative districts  to maximize the votes of those likely to choose the party in power) and efforts to address it. He noted that such practices have ever been with us in the United States – the term itself refers to an action by Elbridge Gerry, a governor who approved a politically-charged district that looked like a salamander, in 1812, but partisan redistricting was used even before the country’s first House of Representative election in 1789.

Effectively, it was the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Baker v. Carr, (1962), which said that redistricting was indeed justiciable and not just a political matter, and Reynolds v. Sims (1964), holding that districts must have roughly equal populations, that set up the “one person one vote” principal that allowed states to start dismantling gerrymandering. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made that principle the law of the land, and Michigan started to  change. But in the meantime, politicians became more and more adept at creating relatively even-sized contiguous districts that diluted the votes of those on the opposing party. (In particular, Schindler noted, Republicans observed that often people of color voted for Democrats, and drew the lines to exclude them.)

Closer to the present day, some states decided to take the matter into their own hands. Arizona and California have created CRCs, and, as reported in the Feb. 2, 2018, Grand Rapids Legal News, commissioners from California visited and helped inform Michigan thanks to funding from the Brennan Center for Justice.

Nancy Wang, who Schindler invited to speak first, said that finding funding to bring those commissioners in marked a turning point in the Voters Not Politicians (VNP) initiative.

Nancy Wang was a co-founder of the group along with Katie Fahey, as previously reported. The carefully-developed campaign started with temperature-taking on social media and was not undertaken until participants determined that Michigan citizens really wanted to see it done. Wang headed up the policy committee which wrote the language, and ultimately was responsible for the decision to conduct the campaign as a constitutional amendment ballot initiative.

After a huge and dedicated volunteer force collected many more than the required signatures to place it on the 2018 ballet, VNP faced a legal challenge, which went to the Michigan Supreme Court. Wang, an attorney who taught at the University of Michigan Law School after receiving her J.D. from there, said she was “surprised” when on the last day of the session at 10:00 p.m., the MSC gave its opinion that the initiative should move forward.

“It was so encouraging. The issues before the Supreme Court were decided on the law,” she said.

Wang stressed that the VNP group was intent on being and remaining nonpartisan, noting that although the current situation in Michigan involves Republicans drawing district lines to disfavor Democrats, the situation could easily be reversed.

Levin followed up regarding his role in making the CRC?happen, which in turn involves finding people to serve on the commission. On the final CRC there will be 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 selections, made by Secretary Benson in her administrative role, will be done randomly after applicants are divided into the three “buckets” above.

The only eligibility criterion is that applicants not be “partisan political officials, candidates, registered lobbyist agents, and their employees or close relatives.” This was designed to keep politics out of the process, but, as Schindler pointed out at the symposium, may bring up first amendment questions.

Said Levin, who also works in legislative strategy and legal research and received his law degree from WMU-Cooley “later in life” – just last year in fact –  “The first task is coming up with an application that makes sense for people to fill out.”

He talked about having to solve the unforeseen problem that the requirement for the application to be notarized may be daunting to some interested people. The solution involves having notaries in each of the Secretary of State offices, who will give their services for free to applicants – a solution that involves its own logistical challenges which must be resolved by the deadlines outlined in the very specific timeline of the amendment.

He added, “We have to be very aware that there might be unintended consequences, and work to resolve them. And in the meantime keep a laser-like focus on those dates.”

Indeed, the Secretary of State released the application about a week later, well before the required Jan. 1 deadline. Secretary Benson announced the availability at a press conference in Grand Rapids Oct. 29 along with several stakeholders, including Anthony J. Minghine of the Michigan Municipal League, Josh Westgate, representing the Michigan Townships Association, and Jamie Lyons-Eddy, VNP director of campaigns and programs.

In accordance with Matt Levin’s comments, the online application (which must be printed off and mailed in or dropped off at an SOS? and is due June 1, 2020) includes information about finding a notary (by visiting  Michigan.gov/FreeNotary). There will be workshops held around the state to help people apply; one is d at 6:00 p.m. on Nov. 13 at the Grand Rapids Community College Sneden Building, Room 108, 435 E. Fulton St., Grand Rapids.  For more, see RedistrictingMichigan.org.

As also reported in past issues of the Grand Rapids Legal News, Secretary Benson supports non partisan citizen redistricting., “As a longtime advocate for independent citizen redistricting, I am committed to ensuring this process is implemented with transparency so voters can have faith that the entire process is truly independent and citizen-led,” Benson said in a statement.

The timeline fulfillment needs to continue despite current legal challenges, something Mark Brewer is intimately familiar with.

At the symposium, he sometimes had to decline comment because he is involved in defending the citizen redistricting process in court, but he noted that he thought there would continue to be challenges and the courts would have to sort it out.  “Politics is a part of this process [of electing representatives],” he said in response to a question about whether a computer could just draw the district lines. “When there are excessive politics, exacerbated by the power of computers and the demographic information we have on all of you, that tool can become a weapon.”

He added, “Fighting over gerrymandering is going to continue. If we want to stop gerrymandering we need to make this commission work. And we need to keep fighting back systematically and not think it’s time to relax.”

Prof. Schindler said he was glad he had the last word. Referring to Benjamin Franklin’s quote that the newly-created United States of America was “a republic - if you can keep it,” he said, “It is the responsibility of everyone to keep this republic strong and I applaud the work done by all of this panel to that end.”

WMU-Cooley Law Review editor Jonathan Brignall, who noted that he actually did get the last word, closed out the session by thanking everyone who worked hard on a successful symposium.

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