Expert testifies gerrymandering in Michigan is worse than almost anywhere

Attorneys for Michigan Republicans say political districts were drawn legally, and evidence showing they bragged about solidifying gains are irrelevant.

Related: Michigan GOP files new suit to stop independent redistricting commission
June 2019: What the U.S. Supreme Court gerrymandering ruling means for Michigan
May 24, 2019: U.S. Supreme Court halts order requiring Michigan to redraw political lines
April 30, 2019: Michigan Republicans appeal gerrymandering ruling. What you need to know.​
April 25, 2019: Michigan’s political districts illegally gerrymandered, court rules​

DETROIT –  Voters nationwide have gone to the polls hundreds of times in since 1970. Few elections have been so skewed toward Republicans as those the past few years in Michigan.

That was the conclusion Tuesday of a George Washington University political scientist, who testified in the first day of a civil trial in U.S. District Court in Detroit that aims to determine whether Michigan’s political districts were drawn illegally in 2011.

“The Michigan Senate maps have more pro-Republican bias than 99.7 percent of all state Legislature maps across the country in the last 45 years,” Christopher Warshaw told the court, adding that Michigan’s legislative maps are “among the largest partisan outliers in history.”

Related: Michigan Republicans defend political maps as gerrymandering trial opens

The lawsuit, brought by the League of Women Voters of Michigan and Democrats including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, could decide whether dozens of Michigan legislative and congressional districts are redrawn for the 2020 election. Lawyers for Republicans who drew the 2011 political boundaries say the maps are legal and can be explained because Democratic voters are clustered in a few metropolitan areas, not because Republican maps herded them together.

Michigan is one of several states in litigation over allegations of gerrymandering, the drawing of legislative districts to give unfair advantage to one political party. The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering redistricting cases in North Carolina and Maryland.

But few states drew maps as unfairly as the Michigan GOP in 2011, said Warshaw, whose testimony in a similar gerrymandering case in Pennsylvania helped persuade a court there to order new districts.

Michigan’s political districts were mostly neutral for decades until the runup to elections in 2012, Warshaw testified Tuesday.

“The only change was this new redistricting plan,” he said.

Warshaw’s testimony drew harsh cross-examination from GOP lawyers, who questioned his conclusion and methodology, particularly the “efficiency gap,” which measures how many votes are “wasted” when districts are drawn to “pack” one party’s voters into as few districts as possible, or “crack” them by spreading the minority party into multiple districts.

GOP attorneys noted that Michigan Democrats, under the same political boundaries, swept statewide political offices in last November’s elections and gained several seats in the Legislature, though both chambers remain under Republican control.

“You cannot tell the court today that there is currently a partisan gerrymander today or for the 2018 elections,” David Cessante, an attorney for Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, told Warshaw.

That’s what counted for fireworks during the first day of the trial. There was plenty of heated testimony about research into voter expectations, wasted votes and partisan bias, but few “Perry Mason” gotcha moments.

At one point, amid deep discussion about matrix points on a chart, U.S. District Judge Gordon Quist acknowledged “I’m having trouble following this.”

Appointed by former President George H.W. Bush, Quist is one of three judges hearing the case, along with Denise Page Hood and Eric Clay, both appointed by President Clinton.

Here’s what else you need to know about Day One of the trial.

What to expect

The trial is somewhat unusual in there is no jury and the plaintiffs only plan to call nine witnesses, relying instead on mountains of evidence already submitted into the record and shared with judges.

Plaintiffs argue Michigan Republicans met in private after the 2010 Census, when states nationwide redraw political boundaries, and concocted maps to solidify their advantage and disenfranchise Democrats.

“The evidence shows we have a secret, well-financed effort … to dilute the power of voters,” said Joseph Yeager, an attorney for the League of Women Voters.

Plaintiffs lawyers have uncovered hundreds of incendiary emails from GOP consultants and politicians, previously reported by Bridge. Some brag about stuffing “Dem garbage” into southeast Michigan districts, ensuring the GOP maintains a 9-5 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation for years and making “sure Democrats cannot take it away from us.”

A GOP attorney, Jason Torchinsky, acknowledged “it’s almost self-evident that every legislator wants to maintain his or her seat,” but emails are irrelevant because the lines were drawn to meet exacting legal standards.

“Out-of-context emails and statements made out of hand in depositions don’t demonstrate the requirements to establish illegal gerrymandering,” said Gary Gordon, an attorney for the GOP-controlled Michigan Senate.

“Plaintiffs come in with computer maps and say ‘We could do better,’” he added. “Well, better doesn’t matter as long as the [redistricting] plan adopted by the Legislature is constitutional.”

Even as testimony began in the trial, which is expected to last about a week, Republicans contend the U.S. District Court doesn’t have standing to hear the case because federal courts have yet to agree on whether gerrymandering to help one party is even illegal.

That’s an issue the U.S. Supreme Court is addressing later this spring in the cases from North Carolina and Maryland.

In every lawsuit involving gerrymandering, plaintiffs on both sides of the political aisle are “consistently wrong,” arguing that the way districts are drawn makes it impossible to prevail, only for election results to show otherwise, Torchinsky said.

Benson isn’t defending districts

Among the oddities of the trial is that the primary defendant, Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who inherited the case when she took office in January, plans to submit no witnesses in the case or contest plaintiffs' claims that districts were illegally drawn.

“She is a longtime proponent of nonpartisan redistricting … and has publicly stated that the 2011 redistricting includes district maps that are [illegal,]”  Scott Eldridge, an attorney who represents her office, said Tuesday.

The former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, Mark Brewer, brought case on behalf of the League of Women Voters against Benson’s predecessor, Ruth Johnson, a Republican.

Benson and Brewer had sought to settle the case in January by agreeing to redraw 11 House seats. But the three judges rejected the settlement Friday arguing that Benson can’t order districts to be redrawn since the law gives only the Legislature that right.

Benson’s refusal to defend the districts has drawn howls from Republicans, but they do have some common ground.

Attorneys for both said they will oppose any ruling in the case that results in special elections before normally scheduled ones in 2020.

League says gerrymandering hurts democracy

The first witness Tuesday, Sue Smith, told the court democracy is hurt when political parties gerrymander districts to partisan advantage.

She is president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan's Ann Arbor chapter and lives in Ypsilanti, which is in a heavily Democratic district.

“No matter how I vote, a Democrat is going to win the general election,” said Smith, who identified herself as a regular Democratic voter.

“If I wasn’t packed in with so many Democrats in these districts, I may have more influence.”

In Michigan,the political party in power in Lansing controlled state and congressional mapmaking following each decennial census.

That changed last November, when Michigan voters approved a measure that puts future map making in the hands of an independent citizens commission starting in the 2022 election.

The League, which bills itself as nonpartisan, became active in redistricting in 2011 after Smith said she attended a public forum in Lansing about the proposed redistricting.

Maps outlining the districts were too small to read. And bills describing the new districts were an indecipherable list of census tracts, Smith said.

“I couldn’t figure out what district I was in,” Smith said. “After sitting through the hearing, [with the] lack of transparency and lack of public involvement, that’s when I thought, ‘Wow, the League has got to get involved.’”

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Wed, 02/06/2019 - 8:22am

So just a typical Bridge article. It must be faced that most organizations like CFM are predominated with people from the left side of the spectrum just by the nature of things, and like a fish in a fishbowl doesn't realize it is in fact wet! Implicit bias is something they need to address if they claim to be non-partisan.

Joel Kurth
Wed, 02/06/2019 - 9:15am

Thanks for your comment, Matt. Just to be clear: Warshaw was a witness in a public trial, making public statements, which we reported, along with criticism of them. Thanks for reading.

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 9:54am

There is literally nothing you could report in this magazine that would satisfy or please Matt

john chastain
Wed, 02/06/2019 - 9:25am

Yep, in order to oppose republicans undermining democracy by cheating, voter suppression and general malfeasance one must be “impartial” as defined by another republican partisan. At one time the Republican Party in this state was mostly centralist, now its dominated by tea party extremism and DeVos owned flunkies who will do everything they can to dominate the state and keep the Democrat “trash” in its place. That this includes people of color is no coincidence since the purpose of voter suppression and gerrymandering is to keep the others (non whites) in their place as well. I know that republicanism is now a fact free dogma so I’m not surprised that science is shying away from them and supporting democracy.

Progressive Chr...
Sat, 02/16/2019 - 8:44am

So sad to see Christian Fundamentalists in bed with the crooks stealing our elections and Pro-Lifers calling our fellow citizens predominantly of color "trash". God help us, please!

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 9:03am

It is very possible there was a Democratic wave because so many people in Michigan are just plain fed up with the way the State has been politically moving. Everyone has just had enough of political maneuvering and voted for change - just as many people voted for the current president. Everyone has had enough.

Paul Jordan
Wed, 02/06/2019 - 10:06am

The people of Michigan already judged this issue, and decided that legislators could not be trusted to establish representational districts. Like the framers of the US Constitution, Michigan voters trust politicians to serve their own interests ahead of the people they represent.

Whether or not the last reapportionment violated the Michigan constitution, it violated fundamental principles of democracy.

By the way, isn't it great that the people of Michigan--regardless of political party--place such a high value on voting and peoples' voices being heard? Perhaps we can trust each other a lot more than we can trust politicians seeking to serve themselves.

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 10:45am

Also, this Democratic wave had nothing to do with gerrymandered districts, and that was the beauty of it. It showed that without gerrymandering, more qualified candidates would likely prevail. Our governor, attorney general, and secretary of state were elected DIRECTLY by the people of Michigan, bipassing our hyper-gerrymandered legislature.

Bob Potocki
Wed, 02/06/2019 - 9:18am

Gerrymandering might not be illegal. But it sure as heck points to a corrupt legislature. Last I heard it was one man, one vote. The idea that Michigan's Constitution could ever prevent voters from deciding a matter of government is absurd on its face.
Pure blarney and poppycock.

Paul Vial
Wed, 02/06/2019 - 9:32am

What standing will the 3 judge panel have once they make their ruling?

Joel Kurth
Wed, 02/06/2019 - 1:16pm

Hi Paul. Thanks for asking. It would depend on what Supreme Court rules and whether such a ruling counters the district court's ruling. Aside from that, it wouldn't surprise anyone if any district court ruling is appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is generally viewed as more conservative.

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 11:11am

Joel, that is the point, in a non-opinion piece this very partisan person is portrayed prominently as an "expert". If his bias was disclosed it eluded me and I suspect anyone else. Treating slanted activists as just "experts" is the nature of media today, lack of ideological diversity probably makes it worse. Thank you.

Joel Kurth
Wed, 02/06/2019 - 11:17am

Thanks for your comment. I do appreciate it and welcome all opinions and criticism. Just to be clear, the only time "expert" appeared in story was in headline, and he was the plaintiff's "expert" witness in the trial. And this to me seems like a fairly straight-forward, on the one hand/on the other hand trial story. But we are also cognizant of all appearances of bias.

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 7:26pm

Geerymandering is politically biased when one side has the majority of the votes and the other side has the wins. This is statiscally evident. This is evident by mapping changes. This is politically credible given the communication records of those involved. To dismiss the facts because someone has a partisan bend is ludicrous.

Larry Shaheen
Wed, 02/06/2019 - 10:07pm

Time to clean house 2020 is less than 2years away michiganders let's make a difference again make sure you vote!!

Kevin Grand
Thu, 02/07/2019 - 6:01pm

Has Mr. Warshaw ever been to Illinois?

To California?

For a truly "objective" political scientist, he certainly has overlooked an awful lot of data.