Follow the money: Fight over Michigan ballot proposal reveals potential conflict of interest

Michigan Chamber of Commerce opposes redistricting reform

(Photo from Pexels)

DETROIT – Two weeks ago, I wrote about the battle over congressional redistricting that’s currently being fought between two political advocacy groups in Michigan.

In short, Voters Not Politicians has created an anti-gerrymandering proposal that will appear on the November ballot as of now, while Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution has initiated a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the proposal. The Michigan Court of Appeals unanimously ruled against Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution on June 7, but the group is now appealing the case to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Who are these groups fighting over how votes are apportioned in Michigan? The answer is simple: Follow the money.

Dollar data

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), an organization that seeks to shed light on the role of money in Michigan politics, has made it easy to do just that. You can find out who is funding groups on both sides of not just redistricting reform but all statewide ballot campaigns here.

MCFN data shows that Voters Not Politicians, the pro-reform group, is mostly funded by individual donors who give less than $10,000. Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, the anti-reform group, receives most of its funding from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and its affiliate groups such as Michigan Chamber PAC II.

What is the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, and why is it significant?

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce is a 501(c)(6), a nonprofit business organization that represents about 6,500 businesses in the state. Michigan Chamber PAC II is one of the organization’s three political action committees. According to the Chamber’s website, PAC II accepts corporate contributions and uses those dollars for advocacy on ballot measures.

So, it makes sense that PAC II is the top contributor to Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, a ballot advocacy group. But why does this matter?

In Michigan, candidates for the state Supreme Court are nominated by political parties (though their party affiliation does not appear on the November ballot). Like other party candidates, justices need fundraising in order to mount a successful campaign.

On April 17, the campaigns of the two Michigan Supreme Court justices facing reelection this year, Kurtis Wilder (R) and Elizabeth Clement (R), held a fundraiser at the headquarters of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber and its affiliate groups are also top donors to two other Supreme Court justices not facing re-election this year, David Viviano (R) and Brian Zahra (R).

One would like to believe that courts always make impartial decisions, uninfluenced by political considerations. But Michigan has a history of judges feeling pressured not to rule against their party's wishes in redistricting cases.

That's a lot of information. To summarize, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce is funding an anti-redistricting reform lawsuit that it hopes to take to the Michigan Supreme Court, at least four justices of which have received significant campaign contributions from the Chamber. The apparent conflict of interest is eyebrow-raising.

The other side of the battle

Voters Not Politicians is not the only group fighting to keep redistricting reform on the ballot. Represent.Us, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit anti-corruption organization, and its state branch, Represent Michigan, have started a campaign against the lawsuit brought forth by Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution.

As part of this campaign, Represent.Us will engage in what grassroots communication manager Ellen Moorhouse called a “Drop the Suit” action in Detroit on July 10. Represent Michigan will attempt to deliver to Mark Davidoff, an executive at financial firm Deloitte and chair of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a signed petition asking him to drop the lawsuit.

“We believe in the power of the people to prevail in their fight for the right to vote,” said Moorhouse.

Represent.Us provides a complete list of its donors here.