Redistricting commission may make gerrymandering worse

This column originally appeared in The Detroit News.

It started with a promise. Left-wing activists told voters that if they approved a new “independent” citizens redistricting commission, they’d draw legislative maps that let voters choose their politicians instead of letting politicians choose their voters.

Now the very credibility of Michigan’s independent citizens redistricting commission is on the line. Partisan activists have put commissioners in a bind, but it is nowhere near as ugly a quagmire as the one into which they’re asking commissioners to push Michigan.

In 2018, voters approved a sweeping constitutional amendment that will change how the state’s electoral maps are drawn this year. Instead of maps drawn by the lawmakers chosen by voters, they’ll be drawn by 13 unelected citizens selected at random by the Democratic secretary of state from a pool of partisan and alleged nonpartisan applicants.

The goal, advocates told us, was an end to gerrymandering. They’ve now flip-flopped and advocate for gerrymandering.

The commission has been holding meetings across the state, listening to public comment and weighing what criteria they will use to map our representation. 

Their conclusion will decide not just the future of legislative boundaries — it’ll demonstrate whether voters can trust the commission.

Commissioners are under withering fire from progressive activists to ignore city, municipal and county boundaries when they draw maps and to instead rely on so-called “communities of interest” built around progressive political goals and identity politics.

Driving the push to gerrymander the maps are elites at the University of Michigan who published a report (with the assistance of the Democratic secretary of state) that encourages the commission to draw districts based on things like shared support for specific legislation, cultural bonds, and something as ambiguous as “a shared vision of the future.” This is gerrymandering manifest.

The report even suggests the commission could gerrymander maps to isolate voters based on their ethnicity or religious faith. Again, this pro-gerrymandering approach is ostensibly backed by Michigan’s Democrat elected leaders.

The Democrat approach could take a jigsaw to the map with dramatic inconsistency. Sure, the commission could draw a “Z” shaped district of metro Detroit voters who back enhanced voter ID reforms, but they could just as easily draw an “S” shaped district in the same counties around voters who back film incentives. 

Which “shared vision of the future” or policy preference would they choose? 

They could carve the city of Grand Rapids into parts of fie different districts based on residents’ religious denominations — portions of the west side for Roman Catholics, southeast neighborhoods for Baptists — or they could segregate the city’s neighborhoods based on predominant ethnicities.

It is a fair bet most voters expect the commission to approach their job much more simply and to respect preexisting community boundaries. Keep metro Detroit voters together. Don’t draw squiggly lines to force downtown Grand Rapids residents into districts with voters two counties away.

When voters were being asked to create the commission, its liberal supporters hosted media and community events showing maps of badly mangled geographies, promising an end to maze-shaped districts.

As this new process unfolds, it looks like the entire ballot proposal was a giant shell game designed to break apart communities and to deliver specific political policy wins in the Legislature.

Voters have noticed.

During the commission’s recent public hearings, they took input from everyday Michigan residents. Participants pushed back against anti-democracy moves to split townships, cities and counties into pieces to deliver Democrat partisan victories.

Now the ball is in the commission’s court. They have the chance to do what voters expected — to stand up to the partisan political abuse, to act independently and to end gerrymandering — or they can listen to politicians and pump it full of steroids.

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.

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