Federal court rules that Michigan’s partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional

This is Michigan’s 12th congressional district, where I live. It didn’t always look like this. There was a time, prior to the Republican redistricting of 2001-2002, when the borders of the 12th district pretty much formed a square. But that changed in the wake of the 2000 census, when the Republican majority in Lansing took the opportunity to redraw the boundaries not just of the 12th district, but of pretty much all of Michigan’s districts, looking at statewide voting patterns, and carving the state up to ensure a conservative majority in perpetuity. And that’s how we came to find ourselves living in this painfully contorted district that twists and lurches its way across southeast Michigan in hopes of capturing every single Democratic voter who might otherwise have made the surrounding districts more competitive for Republican incumbents.

As Karl Rove once said, “when you draw the lines, you make the rules.”

Gerrymandering, of course, wasn’t new in the early 2000s, but the Republicans took it to levels that no one had dared to attempt in the past. As The Nation reported at the time, “(A)ssuming support for the two major parties remains roughly constant, and assuming the Supreme Court does not step into the fray too aggressively, the 2001 redistricting in newly GOP-controlled Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, coupled with the ongoing power grab in Texas, Colorado and possibly Ohio, could give the Republicans up to twenty additional House seats in the next election. The cumulative impact of this change will make it far harder for the Democrats to secure a Congressional majority over the course of the next several election cycles.” And that’s exactly what happened. Without really attracting any new Republican voters, and in spite of demographic trends that favored the Democrats, the Republican Party picked up dozens of congressional seats, secured federal power, and used that power to slash taxes for the wealthy and strengthen the power of corporations. [The Republicans also fought to keep Democrats from voting, employing all kinds of voter suppression schemes, but we’ll talk about that side of the coin at another time.]

So, in this way, the Republicans held onto power in states where they saw their popular support dwindling. They carved up congressional districts, they closed polling places in areas that leaned Democratic, and they continued to do the bidding of wealthy industrialists, like the Koch brothers, who kept filling their coffers. But, eventually, people realized that they didn’t have to just accept this, as they had it within their power to use their state-wide popular vote majorities to pass ballot measures. And, in 2016, 61% of Michigan voters supported Proposal 2 — “Voters not Politicians” — to amend Michigan’s constitution in order to establish a 13-member independent redistricting commission.

While we’re still waiting to see how the “Voters not Politicians” legislation plays out (we’re hopeful that it will be transparent, fair and impartial, but who knows what it will look like in practice), Michigan’s current electoral maps are also being challenged in the courts, where League of Women Voters of Michigan has filed suit against Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

League of Women Voters of Michigan v. Benson was filed in federal court on December 22, 2017, and, on December 27, 2017, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan issued an order declaring that a three-judge panel would be convened to hear the case. The Republicans tried to stop it, but, last week, on April 25th, the three judges on the panel ruled unanimously that 34 congressional and state legislative districts in Michigan, including Michigan’s 12th congressional district, had been subject to partisan, unconstitutional gerrymandering that violated both the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the plaintiffs… Following, from Ballotopia, are the districts in question.

Congressional districts 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12
State Senate districts 8, 10, 11, 12, 14, 18, 22, 27, 32, and 36
State House districts 24, 32, 51, 52, 55, 60, 62, 63, 75, 76, 83, 91, 92, 94, and 95

It should be noted that the decision was not only unanimous among the judges, but that one of those judges was an appointee of George H.W. Bush. [The three district court judges for the Eastern District of Michigan were; Eric Clay, Denise Hood, and Gordon Quist.] In issuing the decision, Judge Eric Clay said, “Today, this Court joins the growing chorus of federal courts that have, in recent years, held that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. We find that the Enacted Plan violates Plaintiffs’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights because it deliberately dilutes the power of their votes by placing them in districts that were intentionally drawn to ensure a particular partisan outcome in each district. The Enacted Plan also injures Plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to association by discriminating against them and their political party and subjecting them to ‘disfavored treatment by reason of their views.'”

And these judges ruled not only that the districts be redrawn on or before August 1, 2019, but that special elections be conducted in 2020 for the Michigan State Senate districts noted above as well as the districts bordering them. This decision, as you might imagine, is also being challenged by Republicans. According to reports today, three Republican State Senators; Lana Theis (Brighton), Ken Horn (Frankenmuth), and Jim Stamas (Midland), appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

OK, I could go on, but that should give you an idea as to where things stand as of right now. I’ve heard that the Supreme Court is wary of getting involved in these recent gerrymandering cases, but we’ll see. This could be yet one more reason to bemoan the theft of the swing seat that was stolen from President Obama during his administration. We shall see.

One last thing… The attorneys for the League of Women Voters of Michigan, in making their case, presented testimony from George Washington University political scientist Christopher Warshaw, who had the following to say. The 2011 redistricting maps being considered in this case, he told the judges on the panel, produced a “more extreme partisan advantage in Michigan, in all three chambers, than in almost any other state in history over the past 45 years.” And, thanks to the hard work of a lot of incredible people, it may finally be coming to an end. [Donate to the League of Women Voters.]

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2 Comments

  1. Posted April 30, 2019 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Our Governor had this to say about the decision of the federal court.

  2. Scott Trudeau
    Posted May 1, 2019 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    The MI Senate (and some individual Senators) have filed an appeal to SCOTUS. https://www.mlive.com/news/2019/04/michigan-senate-appeals-gerrymandering-ruling-to-us-supreme-court.html

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