LANSING – After a repeated standoff between Republican and Democratic members of the Board of State Canvassers and repeated requests by officials of Voters Not Politicians to change the ballot language to better reflect what they said was the spirit of its redistricting proposal, a slight change allowed a 3-1 majority to approve what will likely appear on the ballot describing the proposed constitutional amendment to revise Michigan’s redistricting system.

The head of Voters Not Politicians said the organization was reviewing its options on challenging the approved language in court. Katie Fahey said the language approved did not completely reflect the spirit and the purpose of the proposal.

“Unfortunately, there were still major aspects of the proposal we intentionally crafted … that were left out,” Fahey told reporters after canvassers’ meeting.

However, she said, even if the language does not undergo further change she was confident the proposal would still be successful in November.

The language adopted by the canvassers now says in the title of the proposal: “A proposed constitutional amendment to establish a commission of citizens with exclusive authority to adopt district boundaries for the Michigan Senate, Michigan House of Representatives and U.S. Congress, every 10 years.” The words “of citizens” is the only change in the proposal from what Elections Director Sally Williams originally proposed.

Fahey called the change a minor win for the group.

Jason Hanselman, representing Protect My Vote, a newly organized group opposing the proposal, told the canvassers if they were giving a win to Voters Not Politicians on the language they should give one to the opponents. The proposal will not allow for a citizens’ commission, he said, because the exclusions the proposal creates for those allowed to serve on the commission – no elected officials, no one who ran for office, none of that person’s family members – means only exclusive group of individuals will qualify for the commission. No other changes to the proposal were considered.

The atmosphere in the meeting between the canvassers seemed decidedly more partisan than previous meetings. Fahey said she had sensed a more partisan attitude from both sides on the question.

When the initial vote on the proposal ended in a deadlock, Chair Norm Shinkle, a Republican, seemed ready to adjourn the meeting. He seemed willing to do so after each of the next two proposals that also deadlocked 2-2.

Elections staff reminded the canvassers that the Court of Appeals order issued last week requiring the canvassers to approve language said that when the canvassers convened a meeting on the language, they “shall” approve language. Language also had to be approved by Friday, August 31, though the final ballot itself does not have to be officially certified until Friday, September 7.

And as the canvassers discussed and debated possible amendments to the proposed language, staff also reminded them of a 2004 court decision that specifically put the authority to draft the language in the hands of the Elections Bureau staff.

The meeting was crowded with more than 100 supporters of the proposal, most wearing T-shirts calling for support for Proposal 2 (the proposal is now officially Proposal 18-2, a proposal to legalize marijuana is officially now Proposal 18-1) and stickers that had been handed out.

In describing the language she had drafted (See Gongwer Michigan Report, August 28, 2018), Ms. Williams said the process had to deal with the long proposal and summarize its overall purpose.

Fahey said the proposed language missed much of the essential elements of the Voters Not Politicians proposal. It did not refer to an independent citizens commission that would draw the lines. That was referred to some nine times in the ballot language, which was an important part of the proposal, she said.

The language also did not refer to the openness and transparency required in the ballot proposal, that the commission would have to hold a number of meetings across the state to get public input before it could even begin to consider redistricting proposals, Fahey said.

Additionally, it does not refer to “redistricting” in the title of the commission, though that was how it was referred to in the proposal and how it was described to persons signing the petitions to put it on the ballot, she said.

Fahey also said the language should refer to the commission following the federal Voting Rights Act. That is in the language of the proposal, she said, and to reporters she said opponents are trying to convince voters in Detroit and other locations that the proposal would not follow the act.

Williams said the redistricting procedure already must follow the Voter Rights Act and the language attempted to deal with the other criteria the proposal would enact.

And former Ingham Circuit Judge Peter Hook, one of the attorneys representing Voters Not Politicians, said the court had required the language to clearly address the purpose of the proposal. That would be best accomplished by using the language the group submitted two weeks ago to the bureau.

Several other supporters of the proposal also spoke, most urging the canvassers to add the “independent citizens commission” and the reference to the Voting Rights Act into the language.

Hanselman argued that the commission created was a “majority partisan” commission that would fall under the partisan secretary of state and who would have an almost unlimited budget to run the commission. And while elected officials would be barred, union bosses could serve on the commission, and the free speech of the commission members would be limited.

Audience members guffawed at Hanselman’s comments.

Democratic canvasser Julie Matuzak argued most forcefully to make changes to the language that more closely followed the proposal as Voters Not Politicians outlined it.

“Our job is to make sure when a voter goes to the voter booth the proposal clearly talks about the purpose” of the initiative, she said. Adding the word “open” to the language, she said, could be critical since when voters were approached that point was made “very clearly.”

Republican canvasser Colleen Pero said she wished the language could have more words than the 100 it was allowed. She too complained about the restrictions on the commission that could affect as many as one-third of the people who regularly vote in the state.

With the board at an impasse, and after listening to comments from the canvassers, Williams asked for some time to consider what changes could be made to the language.

After the canvassers recessed for some 25 minutes Williams came back with the addition “of citizens” to the description of the proposal in its title.

Though clearly the change did not seem popular, Democratic canvasser Jeannette Bradshaw proposed it be adopted. It took nearly a full minute before Pero reluctantly supported the proposal.

Matuzak, the only person to oppose the proposal, said she still was not satisfied with the language after the change.

The “real heart and soul of the proposal did focus on transparency, openness the ability of Michiganders to give input on this, which is not a focus of the current process,” Fahey said after the meeting.

If this is the language that remains, she said the campaign will just have to focus on making sure voters know what the proposal means. People are tired of the current system where districts are drawn behind closed doors, she said.

“I think we can win and I think we will. People want reform, they want change” she said.

This story was published by Gongwer News Service.