The geography of electoral districts can have a major impact on the outcome of elections, and traditionally, the state legislatures are in charge of determining where political boundaries fall after every census. The problem with this process is that state legislatures, controlled by party officials, have a vested interest in drawing lines that favor their own political party and systematically disadvantage their opponents. The historical result has been that maps are drawn with obvious and flagrant partisan intent, and have often systematically diluted the votes of specific communities that consistently vote with one party or another.
Michigan’s Independent Citizens’ Redistricting Commission, created after Voters Not Politicians’ successful 2018 ballot initiative, strengthens our democracy by removing partisan interests and protects the voting rights of all communities – especially those who have been systematically disenfranchised. By permitting Voters Not Politicians’ ballot initiative to move forward in spite of challenges from special interest groups, the Court safeguarded the voting rights of Michiganders and enabled Michiganders to improve the health of our elections and democracy.
Voters Not Politicians (VNP), a pro-democracy advocacy group, filed a petition for a 2018 ballot initiative to establish an independent citizens’ redistricting commission in the state of Michigan. Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution (CPMC), a political interest group, attempted to block this ballot initiative by asking the court to direct state agencies to reject VNP’s petition. After several appeals, the Michigan Supreme Court held that the ballot initiative, and its objective, did not violate the Michigan Constitution.
In 2018, Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, an election interest-group, and two independent voters, Joseph Spyke and Jeanne Daunt, sought a court order to compel the Michigan Secretary of State and the Board of Canvassers to reject a ballot initiative proposed by Voters Not Politicians. VNP’s ballot initiative proposed a change to the Michigan Constitution’s provisions governing redistricting. Previously, the Michigan State Legislature oversaw the redistricting process. VNP’s ballot initiative sought to amend the Michigan State Constitution to establish an independent citizens’ redistricting commission. Support for this independent commission was already present in Michigan’s Constitution, but had stagnated due to several legislative actions. Once VNP filed their ballot initiative, CPMC filed a motion at the Michigan Supreme Court to compel state officials to reject VNP’s petition on the grounds that the initiative sought to revise the Constitution rather than to amend it—a process that required a Constitutional Convention rather than a ballot initiative vote.
Did Voters not Politicians’ proposed ballot initiative propose a fundamental revision to the Michigan Constitution and therefore fail to meet the legal standard for inclusion on the 2018 Michigan election ballot?
In an opinion by Justice Viviano, joined by Justices McCormack, Bernstein, and Clement, the Michigan Supreme Court held that VNP’s petition for a ballot amendment was permissible under the Michigan Constitution. The Court rejected CPMC’s argument that the ballot initiative proposed a fundamental revision to the structure of the Michigan Constitution. In its reasoning, the Court relied upon several factors: the petition’s compliance with the Michigan Constitution; the Constitutional Convention’s original definition of the word “amendment;” the vast powers granted by the Constitution to voter-initiated amendments; and the lack of any Constitutional structural change likely to occur as a result of the ballot initiative. Based on these factors, the court found that the ballot initiative merely changed part of the existing constitution and was therefore permissible.
Chief Justice Markman, joined by Justices Zahra and Wilder, dissented, contending that the ballot initiative proposed by VNP did propose a revision of the Michigan Constitution and therefore should not be placed on the ballot without a Constitutional Convention. Their reasoning relied heavily on their assessment that the ballot initiative proposed a change of great magnitude that altered the structure of Michigan’s government and should require a serious public conversation before adoption. The dissent also argued that the amendment’s proposed change to the electoral district drawing process had the power to undermine the balance of power and the relationship between bodies of the Michigan State government.
In a separate dissent Justice Wilder, joined by Justice Zahra, argued that the ballot initiative should also be denied on the grounds that the proposed amendment would repeal an existing provision of the Constitution related to oaths and affirmations without including that provision on VNP’s ballot initiative, as required.