Benson outlines redistricting commission process, stresses need for funding from Legislature

By: - July 18, 2019 5:21 pm

Current Michigan House districts | Michigan Legislature

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson unveiled Thursday the application process and criteria by which the state will select its new independent redistricting commission — and emphasized her office’s need for enough funding to do so.

Jocelyn Benson at a press conference in Flint, Feb. 21, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Benson explained in a Lansing press conference the eligibility guidelines and application language that Michiganders will see when applying for the new, randomly selected, bipartisan commission that will redraw the state’s congressional districts after the 2020 elections.

“For us in this department this is a historic moment in our state, because in my view … if we’re doing this process correctly and effectively, and as best as we can engaging citizens every step of the way, this will historically influence for several decades in the future how this independent commission is run,” Benson said.

The new commission is the result of a successful 2018 ballot initiative spearheaded by Voters Not Politicians, a voting rights nonprofit. Under Proposal 2, which passed overwhelmingly by more than 20 points, a panel comprised of four Democrats, four Republicans, and five non-affiliated voters will meet every 10 years after the U.S. Census to draw the state’s congressional districts.

Benson lays out redistricting commission info online

Benson said that her goal is to make the redistricting commission as representative of the state as possible from a demographic standpoint, and that the Secretary of State’s office needs roughly $2 million for outreach and organization to make sure that happens. 

The Republican-controlled Legislature has proposed cutting funding to the Secretary of State in the upcoming fiscal year 2020 budget, something Benson previously told the Advance was “cutting off the state’s nose to spite our face.”

“It’s one of my deepest frustrations, because the success of this process may very well hinge on whether or not the Legislature fully funds every stage,” Benson said Thursday. “My hope and expectation is that the Legislature … will recognize that this is the law now, and we all have a stake in its success.”

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The final version of the commission application will be randomly sent to at least 10,000 voters starting before January 2020, and the final version will be online this fall. The draft version issued Thursday is just more than four pages long, asking a series of questions to identify respondents’ demographic information and eligibility. The form must be notarized in order to be accepted for consideration. 

Commissioners must be registered voters, and must not have engaged in most forms of political activity in the past six years. The forms of political activity that disqualify voters from the commission include running for partisan office, being a precinct delegate, serving as an officer of a political party, lobbying and working for the Legislature.

Members of third parties, such as the Libertarian or Green parties, will qualify as one of the five non-affiliated commission members.

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By July 2020, the pool of applicants for the commission will be narrowed down to 200 voters. Michigan’s four legislative caucus leaders will then review the pool and have the authority to strike up to five applicants of their choice each, for a total of 20 strikes. 

Out of the remaining pool, the final commission will be chosen randomly by that September. The final maps will be adopted by the commission before November 2021, and become law by the end of that year in order to take effect for the 2022 election.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Benson pointed out that the commission will be fully autonomous from the Secretary of State’s office, but that her office is responsible for administering their creation and infrastructure. Proposal 2 mandated through the Michigan Constitution that the state provide $4.6 million in funding to the commission itself.

The Secretary of State emphasized that the additional $2 million her office has requested will be key to making sure the commission is fully representative of the state’s population.

“[We’ll] go to the communities where we’ve seen historically low turnout, or that are historically marginalized, and make sure they have all the tools they need to get their forms notarized. … We’ve already identified 100 areas of the state, precincts that have low turnout, and they range from Sturgis and Jackson to Flint and Detroit,” Benson said.

She also acknowledged it’s possible that a lack of funding could lead to a less representative commission.

“Our concern is that the less funding this has, the more challenging it will be to ensure full participation across the board,” Benson said. “The bottom line is, we’re charting a new course for this. And if we’re able to work in collaboration with the Legislature, and other funders. … We have the opportunity to really define a best practice, as opposed to just ‘How far can you go with as little funding as possible?’”

U.S. Supreme Court delays Michigan gerrymandering decision

Until the end of June, Michigan’s congressional maps were the subject of a lawsuit brought by activists who claimed they were unfairly drawn to benefit Republicans by the GOP-controlled state Legislature. A 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of two other state gerrymandering lawsuits, however, ruled that such efforts are outside the high court’s jurisdiction and must be remedied by the states themselves.

In a statement, Voters Not Politicians Executive Director Nancy Wang said her group is “happy to see the Secretary of State’s office is executing its administrative role” in the “transparent, citizen-centered” spirit of the original ballot initiative, and that they’ve identified more than 1,500 voters interested in applying for the commission.

The Secretary of State’s office will accept public comment on the application and eligibility guidelines through its website until Aug. 9. 

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Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson

Derek Robertson is a former reporter for the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.