Michigan constitutional amendments worth making

Guest Editorial
Michigan voters did a very good job in this month’s general election protecting their constitution from … well, nonsense. Voters understood that the constitutional amendments that were on the ballot were, in fact, self-serving power grabs by various special-interest groups. Voters rejected all five of them.

That is not to say that Michigan’s constitution is a perfect document. There are actually numerous flaws. One section sets the voting age at 21, but the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reduced the voting age to 18.

In 1992, Michigan voters added term limits to the constitution for Congress as well as state lawmakers. The U.S. Supreme Court overruled that provision three years later, but the wording still exists in Michigan’s guiding document.

Such flaws are meaningless because, while the words are there on paper, they are unenforceable.

The more important flaws, the ones we’re concerned with here, carry more substance. They affect the way we do business as a state. Changing them would have real impacts on how policy is set. Amending them would improve Michigan government.

And these are not the types of changes that out-of-state interest groups or monopoly-owning millionaires would have an interest in sponsoring a petition drive for. They’re simply good policy changes. We citizens would have to take care of these improvements ourselves.

Nomination of Supreme Court justices
The state Supreme Court is supposed to be a nonpartisan panel, just as all the other courts in Michigan are. But, for the Supreme Court, for some reason, the nominees are selected at state party conventions.

The result of this odd contradiction is that candidates run for office claiming to be nonpartisan while everybody knows they are in fact partisan nominees. As we saw in this last election, the parties vigorously campaign for their own supposedly nonpartisan Supreme Court candidates.

Worse yet, once on the court, the elected candidates tend to follow their partisan leanings, resulting in rulings that appear to follow party loyalties. And the court becomes just an extension of the partisan bickering that marks the Legislature.

If we want to fix this, probably the easiest way is to adopt the nominating procedure that we use for all other courts in the state. Any citizen who is qualified — which includes that they must be licensed to practice law — could toss his or her name in for Supreme Court. The field is narrowed in the primary to twice as many candidates as there are seats to be filled.

Electing university boards
For some reason, the drafters of the Michigan Constitution in 1963 determined that voters statewide should elect the governing boards for the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University. Also elected is the State Board of Education.

But the governing boards of Central Michigan University, and Western, Eastern and Northern, as well as Michigan Technological University and Grand Valley State University, are all appointed by the governor.

It’s difficult for voters to know who these candidates are. And candidates don’t typically run campaigns capable of raising their visibility. So when it comes time to vote, most voters are in a position of voting either by name recognition or party preference. Actual qualifications to set policy for institutions of higher learning aren’t really part of the equation.

It would be better to make these all appointments from the governor, who could assign staff to the job of vetting candidates and make sure they have the necessary skill level to run Michigan’s highest institutions of education.

Legislative apportionment

The process of drawing the district boundaries for state House, state Senate and congressional districts is a mess. The current Michigan Constitution set up a Commission on Legislative Apportionment and put in place the rules by which it was to operate. A year after it was drafted, it ran afoul of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The Michigan Supreme Court tossed out the last vestiges of that system in 1982.

Now, state lawmakers draw their own districts. And when lawmakers draw their own districts, they tend to produce district boundaries that protect incumbents, and a lot of noncompetitive districts. That’s exactly what we have in Michigan’s apportionment plan today. That tends to make the Legislature insular, nonresponsive to the electorate statewide.

A number of states have reformed their apportionment systems, so there are a number of models out there to draw from. Most of them have moved to using an independent commission, with various degrees of success. In an attempt to get the partisanship out of it, California proposed drawing its commission membership from retired judges.

Several states — including Idaho and Nevada — take submissions from the general public. That was tried here in an informal way the last time Michigan boundaries were redrawn. Unfortunately, the suggestions from the public were largely ignored.

Divorcing politics from the drawing of political boundaries is probably impossible. Yet, Michigan should make an attempt to replace the current system with one more likely to produce more competitive House, Senate and congressional elections.

Having lawmakers draw their own districts is a conflict of interest that should be obvious to everyone. We should have voters select their lawmakers; not have lawmakers select their voters.