UPDATE:  A version of this blog post appeared in the July 14 edition of Bridge Magazine.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion affirming the constitutionality of Arizona’s independent redistricting commission has refocused public attention on a fundamental process in our representative democracy – the drawing of congressional and state legislative district boundaries.  The Court ruled that states that authorize the initiative and referendum have divided the legislative powers between the elected bodies that meet in the state capitol and the people themselves.  And, within that system, the state constitutional provisions delegating redistricting authority to an independent commission is a valid action that conforms with the U.S. Constitution.

With the renewed national focus on the redistricting process, the Citizens Research Council of Michigan (CRC) is recommending Michigan lawmakers draft an amendment to the state constitution to reform the redistricting process for both congressional and state legislative districts.  If they are unwilling to embrace reform, Michigan citizens should follow the lead of Arizona and initiate the necessary constitutional changes.

In 2000, Arizona voters approved a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment to remove the redistricting process from the state legislature and grant the power to draw district boundaries to the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, an appointed five-member, bi-partisan body.  According to the official ballot language, Proposition 106 aimed to “end the practice of gerrymandering and improve voter and candidate participation in elections by creating an independent commission of balanced appointments to oversee the mapping of fair and competitive congressional and legislative districts.”

Arizona lawmakers did not like the congressional and state legislative maps the commission adopted in 2012 and sued the commission on the grounds that it violated the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations . . . .” Article I, Section 4

The plaintiffs argued that Elections Clause vests the redistricting process with the state legislature and precludes the commission from exercising its authority.  The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed and held that redistricting is not the sole province of a legislative body, but instead it is a “legislative function.”  The Court opined that Arizona voters exercised a legislative power they reserved to themselves under their constitution (i.e., initiative) to create the redistricting commission.

The Court’s ruling does not have anything directly to do with Michigan.  Indirectly, it clarifies the rules and provides citizens and lawmakers an opportunity to reform Michigan’s redistricting process.  What many will find in place today, even if they do just a cursory examination, is something far from an ideal process.  For starters, the redistricting provisions contained in the 1963 Michigan Constitution were ruled unconstitutional in 1982 by the Michigan Supreme Court because they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Lacking the constitutional foundation that most states rely on for redistricting, the process in Michigan occurs in a legislatively-devised and legislatively-adjustable framework.  Lawmakers have the authority to establish the redistricting guidelines and parameters and, ultimately, draw district boundaries.  If they don’t like the current guidelines, or the resulting maps, they have the authority to change them.  It should be of little surprise that the results are congressional and legislative districts that are increasingly drawn to the benefit of the majority party in the years following the census, the election of politicians firmly entrenched in the extreme wings of their political parties, and a sense of disenfranchisement for minority voters in the “safe” districts.

Given the critical role redistricting plays in representative democracy, Michigan citizens should use the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling as motivation to demand that lawmakers take action to amend the state constitution to reform the process and provide clear guidelines for future redistricting.  If lawmakers do not act, then citizens should initiate a constitutional amendment to do so.

In 2011, CRC examined the state’s redistricting process and called for reform.  We reiterate that call and recommend that the 1963 Michigan Constitution should be amended to contain provisions to:

  • Recreate an independent redistricting commission;
  • Limit redistricting to once per decade;
  • Describe the appropriate redistricting procedures and timeline;
  • Increase transparency and public engagement;
  • Protect citizens’ right to challenge redistricting plans; and
  • Require redistricting plans to attend to specific standards (e.g., districts that minimize population variance, are contiguous, adhere to political boundaries, and protect communities of interest).

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