Why do we elect County Commissioners directly rather than using the township supervisor model outlined in the 1963 Michigan Constitution?
Well, first off, what is the township supervisor model outlined in the 1963 Michigan Constitution? Article VII Section 7 states: “A board of supervisors shall be established in each organized county consisting of one member from each organized township and such representation from cities as provided by law.” Sounds pretty swell, right? So, if the 1963 Michigan Constitution says that this is the way it should be, then why isn’t it the way that it actually is?
Because, friends and neighbors, of a foundational Constitutional principle. What? How can that be? The 1963 Michigan Constitution sets out the rules very plainly, so, what gives? As it happens, the United States Constitution is the highest legal authority and any Federal or state law or state constitutional provision may be overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States on that basis, which is exactly what happened in this case. According to the United States Supreme Court decision in Avery v Midland County “units with general governmental powers over an entire geographic area not be apportioned among single-member districts of substantially unequal population." CONSTITUTIONALITY, PA 1966, NO 261, 380 Mich. 736, 740 (Mich. 1967)
What does that mean exactly? The basic idea is that representation of people in government which is based upon where you live geographically should generally seek to equalize the number of people represented per representative. Super simple example. Let’s say we had a county with 100,000 people and there were 10 townships and zero cities. Under the original 1963 Michigan Constitutional framework and the United State Constitution this would work out great. Ten perfectly equal sized districts with one representative each.
Does that seem a likely scenario, however? Nope, not very likely. Much more likely is 16-20 different townships of varying population density and some number of differently sized cities. Under the originally adopted system one township supervisor might represent a couple thousand people while another might represent tens of thousands of people. This would give the people in sparsely populated townships more power in county government while tending to sap power from those people in more densely populated townships.
The whole question came down to the long standing American tradition of equality before the law and equality in representation in government and basic fairness. Now, in light of that Supreme Court decision, just like with Congressional district apportionment (drawing geographic district lines) and State Senate and State House district apportionment after each census, the same thing happens at the county level for the County Commission. Equal representation is what the goal is and after the new districts are apportioned they stick around until the next census, ten years down the road.
And that, folks, is why we directly elect County Commissioners.