Michigan’s redistricting web: Part 1.

May 31, 2015

michigan capitol The Mitten Memo. A blog by Nick Krieger.

At one time, legislative districts in many states—particularly state senate districts—were apportioned principally on the basis of geography rather than population.  In some states, every county was entitled to elect a certain number of state representatives or state senators, regardless of the county’s population.  This often resulted in extremely unequal representation.  For instance, under Alabama’s 1960 plan, Jefferson County (with more than 600,000 residents) and Wilcox County (with only 18,739 residents) were each allocated one seat in the Alabama Senate.  And while Bullock County (with 13,462 residents) was allocated two seats in the Alabama House of Representatives, Mobile County (with 314,301 residents) was allocated only three seats in the Alabama House.

A similar population disparity existed among Michigan’s state senate districts during much of the 20th century.  The Michigan Constitution of 1908 originally provided for the establishment of senate districts according to population and the reapportionment of seats every 10 years.  However, after apportioning the senate in the 1920s, the Michigan Legislature failed to reapportion itself again for almost 30 years.  Therefore, by 1950, the apportionment of Michigan’s senate was frozen in time as of the 1920 census, and had become entirely arbitrary and unrelated to population.

As of 1950—under the terms of the outdated 1920s plan—Kent County was allocated two seats in the Michigan Senate.  In contrast, Oakland County (with 107,000 more residents than Kent County) was allocated only one senate seat.  Indeed, the most populous senate district in 1950 (part of Wayne County) had almost 9 times as many residents as the least populous state senate district (the western Upper Peninsula).

A 1952 amendment to the Michigan Constitution alleviated this inequality to some extent by increasing the number of senate seats from 32 to 34.  However, the amendment left in place a 6-to-1 population disparity between the largest and smallest senate districts.  And in the end, the 1952 amendment actually made things worse by locking the geographic descriptions of the 34 existing senate districts into the language of the state constitution itself.  The vast population disparity among Michigan’s senate districts was one of the principal factors underlying the push for a new state constitution in 1961.

On April 3, 1961, Michigan’s voters approved a ballot question to convene a state constitutional convention (Con-Con).  Voters across Michigan elected 144 Con-Con delegates—one from each existing house and senate district.  The delegates arrived in Lansing on October 3, 1961, and worked until May 1962.  They then reconvened on August 1, 1962, for the purpose of approving the final draft of their proposed new constitution.

As finally approved by the Con-Con delegates, the proposed new constitution called for 110 seats in the Michigan House and 38 seats in the Michigan Senate.  The document provided that house districts would be drawn primarily according to population, but prohibited the division of certain county boundaries in the apportionment process.  The document specifically required the use of both population and geographic data in the drawing of senate districts.

The problem—already obvious to many observers by August 1962—was that the proposed new constitution, if approved by the voters, still would not require the drawing of legislative districts exclusively on the basis of population.  In the minds of many, this was a glaring defect.

In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court had decided the seminal case of Baker v. Carr, laying the groundwork for future lawsuits challenging the validity of state legislative districts.  One month later, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Michigan Supreme Court to address the validity of Michigan’s 1952 senate apportionment plan in a case called Scholle v. Hare. In July 1962, the Michigan Supreme Court decided in Scholle that the 1952 senate apportionment violated the United States Constitution.

When the Con-Con delegates reconvened on August 1, 1962, the decisions in Baker and Scholle were fresh in their minds.  Several Democratic delegates argued that the legislative-apportionment sections of the proposed new constitution should be revised in accordance with the principles announced in Baker and Scholle before final submission of the document to the voters.  These Democratic delegates offered amendments to require apportionment of the Michigan House of Representatives and Michigan Senate solely on the basis of population.

A majority of the Con-Con delegates, however, were Republicans from rural areas who wished to retain a senate apportionment formula based on geographic territory.  Consequently, the last-minute amendments proposed by the Democratic delegates were rejected.  Even with full knowledge of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Baker, a majority of the Con-Con delegates believed that the new constitution, if approved, would withstand Equal Protection scrutiny by the federal courts.

The proposed new constitution was submitted to the people of the State of Michigan at the regular spring election of April 1, 1963, where it was narrowly adopted by a vote of 810,860 to 803,436.  As ratified, the Michigan Constitution of 1963 continued to require the use of population and geography in the apportionment of legislative seats.

But the new constitution contained a novel innovation as well:  A bipartisan apportionment commission that would be impaneled once every 10 years to draw the state’s house and senate districts.  The constitution provided that the commission would consist of four Republicans and four Democrats.  (The commission would also include four additional members if any third party received more than 25 percent of the vote in the previous gubernatorial election.)  The commission was required to adopt a plan of redistricting by majority vote.  In the event that a majority of the commissioners could not agree on a plan, the Michigan Supreme Court was directed to choose a redistricting plan before the next election.

The new apportionment commission met for the first time in early 1964.  Interestingly, two members of the 8-person commission had ties to west Michigan.  Henry Dongvillo of Mason County was appointed to serve as one of the Democratic members.  William F. Hanna of Muskegon (later an Oceana County Prosecuting Attorney) was appointed to serve as one of the Republican members.  The commission eventually deadlocked along partisan lines and was unable to adopt a redistricting plan by majority vote.  Thus, the matter was referred to the Michigan Supreme Court, where it resulted in considerable disagreement and consternation among the justices.  In May 1964, a majority of the justices finally determined that the plan proposed by Commissioner Hanna complied most closely with the requirements of the new Michigan Constitution.  The Court ordered the plan’s adoption for the November 1964 legislative elections.

Part 2 of 3 will appear next Sunday. 

Nick Krieger is a graduate of Ludington High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University, and holds a law degree and master’s degree from Wayne State University Law School.  Nick works as an attorney for the Michigan Court of Appeals and owns a home in Ludington. The viewpoints expressed in The Mitten Memo are Nick’s own, and do not reflect the views of the Michigan Court of Appeals or Media Group 31, LLC and its affiliates: Mason County Press, Manistee County Press and Oceana County Press.  Contact Nick via e-mail at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @nckrieger.

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