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Analysis: What Michigan can teach Ohio about redistricting

Protestors hold signs that say "fair maps now" and "no excuses"
Carlos Osorio
Protesters attend a meeting of Michigan's new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission on Oct. 21, 2021, in Lansing, Mich. An Associated Press analysis of election data indicates that Michigan's new state legislative districts reduced the built-in advantage Republicans had enjoyed over the previous decade. It shows that gerrymandering, or the lack of it, can affect the balance of power in legislatures and, ultimately, the policies they pursue.

There are large portions of the Buckeye State where children are taught from an early age to despise the state of Michigan, our neighbor to the north.

They spell the state's name with an "X" instead of an "M." They learn a song to the tune of "The Old Gray Mare" inelegantly called "We Don't Give a Damn for the Whole State of Michigan."

The college football showdown of the year takes place each fall in Ann Arbor or Columbus between the Wolverines and the Buckeyes. It is not just a game. It is a jihad.

This enmity has deep roots. Goes all the way back to 1836 when the militias of Ohio and Michigan fought a mostly bloodless war over possession of Toledo.

Toledo, for crying out loud.

Ohio won by the way. Michigan got all of the Upper Peninsula.

But for all of Ohio's braggadocio, for all of Ohio's looking down its nose at Michigan, there's one area where "that state up north" has Ohio beat by miles:

The drawing of state legislative and congressional district lines.

Instead of the still-unresolved mess that was created by Republican elected officials on Ohio's legislative redistricting system, Michigan has a body that bars elected officials from the process.

RELATED: A timeline of Ohio's redistricting saga

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MIRC) was created by a constitutional amendment passed by the people of Michigan in 2018.

It does exactly what its title says. The commission is made up of 13 randomly selected citizens — four who consider themselves Republicans, four who identify with the Democratic Party and five who are true political independents.

Elected officials need not apply for a seat on MIRC. They are specifically banned from being part of the process.

It's hard to imagine all the headaches that might have been avoided last year had Ohio had a system where elected officials were not part of the process.

Last year, the GOP majority on the Ohio Redistricting Commission came up with no less than seven redistricting plans — each and every one of which was rejected by a majority of the Ohio Supreme Court as being unconstitutional.

Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly kicked the can down the road until they could get past the November 2022 election for the Ohio Supreme Court.

The result of that election was an Ohio Supreme Court that will give the legislature and the commission whatever it wants, when it wants it.

Such a tangled mess could never happen in Michigan under the new rules.

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The November 2022 election was the first conducted under maps approved by MIRC and it appears to have been a success.

Anthony Eid, a 28-year-old Chaldean and Lebanese American from Detroit, is one of the five political independents selected for the commission.

"I was a college student back 2018 when Proposal 2 to create the commission was on the ballot,'' Eid said. "I was really enthusiastic about it. I told everyone I knew and a lot of people I didn’t know that they should vote for this."

Eid has a master's degree from Wayne State University and has completed two years of medical school. He hopes to be an orthopedic surgeon.

"After Proposal 2 passed, I threw my hat in the ring for an appointment to the commission, never thinking I would actually be selected,'' Eid said. "I am very glad I was. This has been a tremendous experience."

Eid, who is the youngest member of the 13-member commission, said he brings two things to the table — his background in science and representing southeast Michigan's enormous Arab community. Metro Detroit is home to the largest number of Arab-speaking Americans in the country.

The 2020 Census numbers that MIRC used as the basis of its work — and as the basis for the many citizen-initiated maps that were submitted — were delayed because of the COVID pandemic.

"We were required to have at least 10 public hearings but COVID delayed the Census numbers," Eid said. "Still, we managed to have 15 public hearings in cities across the state."

Eventually, the commission landed on a set of state legislative and congressional district maps that had majority support on the panel. The maps had to have the votes of two Democrats, two Republicans, two independents and one additional commission member.

The end result was an election in 2022 where, unlike Ohio, the legislative maps had no input whatsoever from the politicians whose careers depended on them.

Michigan's state legislature, both the House and Senate, flipped from Republican to Democratic control last November.

"This time, the Democrats are in control," Eid said. "But after the next census, we will do this again. It could flip back the next time around. That's the beauty of this system."

Given Michigan's experience, there are many in Ohio looking to replace the redistricting system that Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved in 2015 and 2018.

Most of the push for reform is coming from Ohio's voter rights organizations, like Common Cause Ohio, who helped craft the present system years ago.

Former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor is a Republican who voted with the Democrats to declare the GOP maps unconstitutional seven times.

ANALYSIS: Maureen O'Connor may be retiring from Ohio's high court, but not from tormenting the GOP

O'Connor couldn’t run for reelection last year because of Ohio's age limits law for judges. But, now, out of office, she wants to help lead an effort to change Ohio's system to one where elected officials are not involved.

Even Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican on the current Ohio Redistricting Commission who voted for all of the maps that the Ohio Supreme Court rejected as unconstitutional, says he now supports an independent commission, without elected officials input.

DeWine, in response to a question from the Toledo Blade editorial board in February, explained the reasoning behind his sudden epiphany on redistricting.

"Taking it out of the hands, frankly, of elected officials is probably a good idea," DeWine said. "How we do that, though, to make sure it is done in an impartial way, is a difficult challenge."

DeWine, who will likely never run for office again, gave no indication that he wants to be the one to take up that challenge.

Back in 2012, Ohio voters went to the polls and rejected a plan for an independent redistricting commission.

Voting rights groups in Ohio are hoping the frustrating situation on redistricting last year has changed their minds.

After the 2012 defeat, voting rights groups sat down with the Republican legislative leaders to hammer out what became the redistricting plan that was in effect last year.

"We had just got our butts kicked in 2012,'' said Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio.

But they fashioned a plan and hoped that the Republican leadership would take the process seriously, Turcer said.

"I expected that they would play games with us, that we would have to hold their feet to the fire," Turcer said. "But I never anticipated that they would just ignore the Ohio Supreme Court."

COMMENTARY: Mike DeWine's epiphany on redistricting reform likely won't change a thing

"The next logical step is taking this out of the hands of elected officials. And we can look to Michigan's experience for inspiration."

Job number one, though, is their effort to defeat State Issue 1, a constitutional on an August 8 special election ballot that would raise the bar for passing constitutional amendments to 60% and impose hard-to-achieve rules on gathering signatures.

"If that issue were to pass, it would be almost impossible to get any constitutional amendment on the ballot," Turcer said.

But if they clear that hurdle on Aug. 8, Ohioans could soon have a choice on redistricting.

A choice between the present system, where elected officials choose their voters; or a new system, where voters choose their elected officials.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.