The Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan hosted a panel featuring leading figures in current electoral reform, bringing together nearly 100 students and community members for a discussion on the future of Michigan’s electoral system and midterm proposals on Monday.
The event consisted of several panelists organized to discuss the costs and benefits of two specific ballot initiatives to be voted on in less than a month on Nov. 6. Proposal 2 would establish an independent redistricting commission to replace the current process of drawing district lines. Proposal 3, otherwise known as “Promote the Vote,” would make several changes to the Michigan Constitution, incorporating practices such as straight-ticket voting, automatic and same-day voter registration and unconditional absentee voting for Michigan residents overseas.
According to John Chamberlin, professor emeritus of Public Policy, the moderator of the event, each initiative would greatly reform the electoral system of the state of Michigan, allowing for greater citizen efficacy and minimizing the possibility of partisan activity in the redistricting process.
Panelist Sharon Dolente, a voting rights strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, was adamant in her support for Proposal 3, as it would work to prevent disenfranchisement of voters who struggled to navigate the voting process. In her opening remarks, she detailed her work for the ACLU, which included working with voters turned away at the polls on Election Day. Dolente said even a single voter disenfranchised by the Michigan electoral system represents a major problem that needs to be resolved.
“I hear a lot of noise and chaos of what happens on Election Day,” Dolente said. “I hear all the challenges that voters are facing when they go to cast their ballots here in Michigan. Voters are turned away in every single election. Voters are turned away right here in Ann Arbor. Voters are turned away in the primaries. Every election I talked to voters who were turned away at the ballot box.”
Panelist Nancy Wang, board president of Voters Not Politicians, an organization whose goal is to promote Proposal 2 and end gerrymandering in Michigan. Wang said the issue isn’t explaining the nuances of the proposal, but rather making sure people know what’s on the ballot before they get to the polls. Both Wang and Dolente said Michigan has fallen behind on adopting key election reforms, specifically involving voter registration and gerrymandering.
“Right now, we have thousands of volunteers that are knocking on doors, just spreading the word,” Wang said. “Our challenge right now is not with the proposal. Everyone we can spend about 10 to 15 seconds with understands that this policy makes sense.”
The second initiative discussed at the event, Proposal 2, drew much more debate from members of the panel. As the law currently stands, redistricting is controlled by politicians of the majority party in the state legislature, and leaders are not required to disclose to the public information regarding the redistricting process. Proposal 2 would imbue far greater transparency in process: if the initiative passes, Michigan residents would be able to apply to be members of the commission.
However, panelist Richard McLellan, an election law attorney, claimed while Proposal 2’s intent is honest, in practice, it would ultimately be unsuccessful. McLellan said the policy would establish a convoluted structure inevitably resulting in disputes and would bypass the legislative process by being incorporated directly into the state constitution. Furthermore, he said constantly changing opinions would make such a permanent change detrimental to the electoral system.
Another element of Proposal 2 mandates members of the redistricting commission isolate themselves from others during the redistricting process. McLellan said this amount of distancing from the public is unrealistic in today’s digital age and isolation from the general population could lead to ill-informed redistricting.
“It bans commissioners from talking to ordinary people,” McLellan said. “You can only talk to your staff, attorneys, experts and consultants. These are a group of randomly-selected people. I want them walking around, talking to people. I don’t think that’s good public policy.”
The panel was co-sponsored by WeListen, a bipartisan student organization that aims to foster discussion on contentious political issues. LSA sophomore Taylor Smith is a member of the organization and said she liked weighing the contrasting ideologies offered by members of the panel.
“It was very interesting to hear the conservative viewpoint and the liberal viewpoint,” Smith said. “I like to be totally informed before making a decision, as opposed to just listening to one side.”
Toward the end of the event, Public Policy students, as well as others in attendance, were encouraged to submit questions for the panel to discuss. Tom Ivacko, the associate director of the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the Public Policy School, said this was representative of the type of discourse Public Policy students are encouraged to engage in.
“We try to foster at the Ford School a focus on conversation across differences, and these potential policy reforms represent significant change that could fall along partisan divides,” Ivacko said. “We’re trying to foster civil discourse about challenging policy issues.”