Gerrymandering suit settlement could spark political showdown for 2020

Michigan congressional districts | Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Voters may have believed they settled the issue of how to draw fairer legislative and congressional districts in Michigan when they voted for Proposal 2 on Nov. 6.

But a new front in the redistricting fight could open up before the new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (ICRC) is seated. And it could mean new maps for the 2020 election — which could include state senators who serve four-year terms and wouldn’t normally be on the ballot.

Jocelyn Benson

On Thursday, Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson moved to settle a looming federal lawsuit on gerrymandering. While that could lead to fairer districts, experts also say that it could also cause headaches in the shorter term.

“We want to make every vote count, but [redistricting] is a lot of work,” said Eric Lupher, president of the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council.

If a settlement agreement includes redrawing maps for the state’s 2020 election — which appears likely — that sets up a very tight timeline. And it would probably ignite a political battle royale, even after many Democrats and Republicans alike have vowed to work together in this new era of divided government in Michigan.

There’s some question about how the process would work. The GOP-led Legislature could get first crack at drawing maps. A judicial panel, Benson and attorney Mark Brewer, who filed the suit, could also get to weigh in on the redistricting process, Bridge has reported.

Any settlement would have to include Republicans who have joined the fight against the lawsuit, including Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and several members of Congress.

Lee Chatfield

Benson became the defendant in the case, League of Women Voters v. Benson, after she assumed office on Jan. 1. Her predecessor, Republican Ruth Johnson, had been actively contesting the suit. But Benson, who supported Proposal 2, is changing strategy.

The suit was filed on behalf of LWV in 2017 by Brewer, a former Michigan Democratic Party chair. Other plaintiffs include Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), a longtime Benson ally.

Benson’s move to settle the case could prevent a trial from commencing next month, as was previously slated.

The SOS’s court filing notes that it would “permit [the two parties] the opportunity to focus their efforts on negotiating a mutually agreeable and complete resolution of their disputes” and better serve the people of Michigan.

Claims of ‘gerrymandering’

In her brief, Benson took the position that Michigan districts are gerrymandered, meaning that maps are drawn to favor one particular political party.

“It is clear the court has found significant evidence of partisan gerrymandering, and the likely outcome would not be favorable to the state,” Benson said in a statement. “It is therefore my responsibility to ensure a fair and equitable resolution for the citizens of Michigan that would save taxpayer money and ensure fair representation.”

Benson’s assessment is in line with the findings of a 2018 report by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, which found that several of the state’s maps “fail” many of the tests used to determine gerrymandering.

Lupher told the Advance on Friday morning that while he agrees with Benson’s sentiment that settling the case makes for an “efficient” use of taxpayer resources, there could be other costs.

Specifically, Lupher expressed concern about the work required to draw new congressional and legislative maps for 2020 — and then again in 2022 for the regular process that takes place after the decennial census.

Details of GOP attempts to gerrymander districts in Southeast Michigan were highlighted in a Detroit News report from last year. Based on emails unveiled in the case, Republican strategists talked about their attempts to “cram Dem garbage” into a handful of congressional districts.

Mike Shirkey

How the Republican-controlled Legislature and the executive branch controlled by Democrats would work together to make new maps ahead of the 2020 election is unclear.

Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), declined to comment beyond saying that Shirkey “is reviewing this latest development with Senate legal staff.”

Shawn Starkey, communications director for the Secretary of State’s office, also declined to comment, noting that discussions related to terms of the consent agreement have yet to commence.

New redistricting commission

Benson’s move to settle the lawsuit comes as the state readies for a whole new process of drawing congressional and legislative maps outlined in Proposal 2.

While the initiative spearheaded by Voters Not Politicians is separate from the lawsuit, the organization believes that the move to settle sends a strong message about the damage gerrymandering causes.

A protestor demonstrates during a Dec. 12, 2018, rally in the Capitol | Ken Coleman

“We think this lawsuit is incredibly important so we can define what partisan gerrymandering is; hopefully so we can end it nationwide,” said spokeswoman Elizabeth Battiste. “But the lawsuit is focused on the outcome of partisan gerrymandering and our amendment will correct the process of redistricting.”

For her part, Benson also believes that the independent redistricting commission is the solution to gerrymandering.

“As a longtime advocate of citizen involvement in redistricting as a solution to end gerrymandering, I look forward to implementing an ICRC in a way that is transparent, nonpartisan and effectively engages citizens across the state in the important task of drawing legislative districts that comply with state and federal law.” Benson said.

Lupher, the Citizens Research Council president, also expressed hope that the commission will make Michigan a more competitive political state.

“We’re hopeful that this commission system will help to create fairer districts — fairer [and] more competitive elections,” he said. “I think the way we’ve organized ourselves in the state, there won’t be huge swings, but there should be a fair number of competitive districts [with] maps drawn without bias; they should reflect that competitiveness.”

GOP opposition

Not surprisingly, former state Rep. Laura Cox (R-Livonia), who’s running for Michigan Republican Party chair, blasted Benson’s move. 

In a Facebook post, Cox wrote she believes Benson is “trying to rig the system in favor of Democrats” in an effort “to strike a corrupt bargain to benefit her donors and partisan friends [which] shows her true partisan ways.”

A group of Republicans are fighting the lawsuit including Chatfield, who grabbed headlines on Friday for inviting President Donald Trump to deliver the State of the Union address in Michigan. Other officials involved are U.S. Reps. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet), Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and Tim Walberg (R-Tipton).

Various business groups were largely quiet on the news that Benson seeks to settle the gerrymandering lawsuit. Many opposed Proposal 2, with some arguing the constitutional amendment was vaguely worded.

Andy Johnston, vice president of government and corporate affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, told the Advance on Friday that he was still unsure about the impact of the proposal to settle the lawsuit.

He continued to express skepticism in an independent redistricting commission, like ones in place in California and Arizona.

“Proponents [of independent redistricting] argue that it leads to better policy,” Johnston said. “Is California getting better policy outcomes?”

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.

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