Michigan voters this fall will get to decide whether to change how their state's congressional and legislative districts are drawn, the state Supreme Court ruled late Tuesday.
In a 4-3 decision, the justices rejected a lawsuit challenging an anti-gerrymandering ballot measure, meaning it will go to a statewide vote in November.
The constitutional amendment, if approved, would entrust redistricting to an independent commission instead of the Legislature and governor. It is a bid to stop partisan gerrymandering, the process of a political party drawing electoral maps to maintain or expand its hold on power.
Michigan Republicans controlled redistricting after the 2010 and 2000 censuses. They have nine of Michigan's 14 U.S. House districts and hold 27-10 and 63-46 majorities in the state Senate and state House, respectively.
The suit was filed by a business-backed group that contended the ballot measure was too broad and that such changes instead should be decided at a rarely held constitutional convention.
But a majority of the high court — which is controlled 5-2 by Republican nominees or appointees — ruled that the citizen-initiated constitutional amendment organized by ballot committee Voters Not Politicians is permissible because it would "not significantly alter or abolish the form or structure of our government" nor "propose changes creating the equivalent of a new constitution." Justices David Viviano, Bridget McCormack, Richard Bernstein and Elizabeth Clement, in an opinion written by Viviano, affirmed a state appeals court decision that had ordered the proposal on the ballot.
Under the initiative, a commission of citizens who meet certain qualifications would handle redistricting. There would be four Democrats, four Republicans and five members with no affiliation with either major party. The panel would be prohibited from providing a "disproportionate advantage" to a political party, using "accepted measures of partisan fairness."
The dissenting justices said the measure proposes a "general revision" to the constitution and is eligible to be placed on the ballot only at a constitutional convention.
"The VNP proposal would affect the 'foundation' power of government by removing altogether from the legislative branch authority over redistricting and consolidating that power instead in an 'independent' commission made up of 13 randomly selected individuals who are not in any way chosen by the people, representative of the people, or accountable to the people. This, in my judgment, reflects a fundamental alteration in the relationship between the people and their representatives," Chief Justice Stephen Markman wrote in an opinion joined by Brian Zahra and Kurtis Wilder.
The ballot drive was organized by an all-volunteer group of activists that defied the odds by collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures without having to pay for them — a rarity in Michigan politics outside of anti-abortion petition drives.
"The court's decision upholds our right as citizens to petition our government for positive change," Katie Fahey, founder and executive director of Voters Not Politicians, said in a statement. She said the measure would "bring the redistricting process out in the open, adding that "it's time voters choose their politicians, not the other way around."
The legal challenge was brought by Citizens Protecting Michigan's Constitution, a group connected with the state Chamber of Commerce. Though Fahey said the redistricting proposal is supported by Democrats, Republicans and independents, the Michigan Republican Party has said the ballot drive is led by a "Democrat front group" and has no GOP leaders.
An Associated Press statistical analysis of the 2016 election results found that Michigan's state House districts had one of the largest Republican tilts in the nation, trailing only South Dakota's. The AP used an "efficiency gap" analysis to measure potential gerrymandering — the same statistical tool later cited in a lawsuit that alleges Michigan's legislative districts are unconstitutional.
A separate statistical analysis conducted for the AP by the Princeton University Gerrymandering Project found that the extreme Republican advantages in some states were unlikely to be a fluke. The Princeton analysis found that the Republican edge in Michigan's state House districts had only a 1-in-16,000 probability of occurring by chance.
Voters in other states also will weigh in on redistricting this fall.
In Colorado, two proposed constitutional amendments have been placed on the ballot by the Legislature. Petitions submitted in Missouri and Utah are awaiting certification.