Monday, June 2, 2014

Constitutional amendment could result in gerrymandered Board of Ed

Last week a measure was introduced in the Michigan Legislature which could send the well-functioning State Board of Education (SBE) into gerrymandered dysfunction. 

The Michigan Constitution currently mandates that members of the SBE stand for statewide election and serve eight-year terms.  However, Joint House Resolution GG, introduced last week, could send a constitutional amendment to the ballot which would instead have SBE members elected from single member districts.

Currently the SBE has a mix of Democrats and Republicans, but generally comes together and agrees on matters both routine and controversial.  The dynamic is different on the SBE than in many other institutions in Lansing.  This no accident.

Both houses of Michigan's Legislature are composed of members representing a single district, and every district having one representative.  The district lines are drawn by whatever party holds a majority every ten years when it's time to redraw the lines.  Democrats and Republicans alike have traditionally used this as an opportunity to draw districts which favor their party, even if the districts split communities.  This is called gerrymandering.

When districts are gerrymandered, most districts will be "safe" for one party or the other and the result of the general election is a forgone conclusion.  The real contest is in the primary of the party which holds the advantage in the district.  To win the primary, candidates tend toward the ideological fringes.  This results in representatives with positions much more extreme than the general electorate of their district.  Additionally, each representative is insulated from criticism from outside his district, as the majority of Michigan citizens cannot vote in his election. This results in a very polarized governing body. 

As currently comprised, the SBE is designed to avoid that.  All eight members stand for statewide election, so each member is accountable to every voter in the state, and the incentive in a primary is to produce a moderate candidate who can win in a competitive general election.  Additionally, only two members stand for election at a time, so the SBE has a built in level of consistency with little turnover.

Joint House Resolution GG would change all of that, subjecting the SBE to gerrymandering and lowering it into the depths of Lansing's political fray. 

The joint resolution amendment process is governed by Article XII, Section 1 of the Michigan Constitution.  The measure will need to pass both houses of the Legislature by a 2/3 majority, and then it will go to the ballot.  Joint House Resolution GG was introduced last week and referred to committee. 

Tomorrow we will publish a Q and A with SBE Vice President Casandra E. Ulbrich concerning Joint House Resolution GG.

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