October 3, 2020


Michigan's effort to end gerrymandering revives a practice rooted in ancient Athens (John Rothchild, 9/30/20, The Conversation)

Unlike any other state, Michigan selected its 13 commission members almost entirely by lot from among those who applied for the position.

All Michigan registered voters who met the eligibility criteria - which excluded holders of political office and lobbyists, for example - were eligible to apply.

From 9,367 applicants, the secretary of state randomly selected 200 semifinalists. The process resulted in 60 Democrats, 60 Republicans and 80 independents. By the terms of the ballot initiative, the four leaders of the Michigan Legislature then eliminated 20 of those semifinalists.

In August 2020, the secretary of state randomly selected the 13 commissioners from the pool of 180 candidates - four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents, as required.

The commission - made up of citizens with no special qualifications for the office - will now perform one of the most important roles in a democratic system: creating the districts from which Michigan's state and federal legislators will be elected.

Random selection in ancient Athens
With the exception of court juries, the random selection of citizens to fill government office is almost unheard of. But it was not always that way.

Random selection was a prominent feature of ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy. In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., most important government offices were filled by lottery. The Athenians considered this selection of officials a hallmark of democracy. [...]

How, then, should Michigan's decision to assign unskilled members of the public the job of drawing nonpartisan election districts be evaluated?

Redistricting is a complex task. Michigan's Constitution says that the districts must be drawn in compliance with federal law. That includes a requirement that voting districts have roughly the same population. It also requires that the districts "reflect the state's diverse population and communities of interest," and "not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party."

Dividing the map to meet all of these criteria is not likely to be within the capabilities of a group of randomly selected citizens.

There are several reasons to think that the redistricting commission will nevertheless prove adequate to the task.

First, the constitution authorizes the commission to hire "independent, nonpartisan subject-matter experts and legal counsel" to assist them. Second, there's precedent in government for citizens who have no specialized skills: Juries composed of randomly selected citizens regularly decide cases that are enormously complicated. An antitrust case may involve thousands of pages of documents. And a patent infringement case may require an understanding of complex engineering issues.

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Finally, considering how far the Michigan Legislature's efforts have fallen short of achieving the fundamental democratic goal of selecting representatives who reflect the views of their constituents, there is reason to think that a balanced group of unskilled citizens will do better.

Bill Buckley smiled.
Posted by at October 3, 2020 8:48 AM