Gerrymandered districts help Republicans keep control of Michigan Legislature
Democrats gain in state House, Senate
Michigan Democrats narrowed the Republican majorities in the state Legislature by picking up a net of five House and six Senate seats, mostly on strength in Metro Detroit and Grand Rapids and a number in districts that had backed President Trump in 2016. Click on the map to see how a district voted and how that compared with past elections.
Source: Michigan Secretary of State
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Michigan’s Democrats scored victories across every statewide office Tuesday, sweeping the top statewide offices, adding a Supreme Court seat and winning multiple chairs at university boards.
They slashed the Republican advantage in the congressional delegation, picking up two seats previously held by the GOP, to draw to a 7-7 split.
But for all their victories, Democrats remain a distinct minority in the state Legislature – despite picking up over half the votes cast in all state House and Senate races.
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A Bridge Magazine analysis shows the discrepancy largely is because of gerrymandered districts drawn in 2001 and refined in 2011 to reshape the state to Republican advantage.
“Democrats won every statewide election. not just the top statewide races, but all eight of the education boards, and Democrats still could not even get a tie, let alone control of the Legislature,” said Southfield attorney Mark Brewer who is challenging the GOP maps in federal court. He’s also a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.
“That's a durable, powerful gerrymander."
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By law, whichever party controls the Legislature after the decennial Census draws the maps, and during the last two cycles, Republicans have been Michigan’s official political cartographer.
Throughout this year, Bridge Magazine has published numerous articles showing the GOP and business interests joined forces in past redistricting efforts to pay for consultants and lawyers to ensure that districts remain some of the most heavily tilted toward Republicans in the nation.
“At the end of the day, those maps tend to favor Republican candidates,” said Arnold Weinfeld, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
Despite typically getting less than half the votes in statewide races, Republicans had a 63-47 advantage in the House and a 27-11 lead in the Senate going into Tuesday’s election.
Those leads shrunk amid heavy turnout for Democrats, but Republican majorities remain: 58-52 in the House and 22-16 in the Senate.
In the Senate, statewide Democratic candidates received 50.4 percent of all votes, yet Republicans control 58 percent of Senate seats.
And in Congress, Democrats received 50.7 percent of all votes to the Republicans' 46.2 percent, but could only muster a tie.
“Clearly the way the lines have been drawn have been to give favor the Republican Party,” said Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, which has studied gerrymandering for years.
One way to measure the effect of gerrymandering is something called the “efficiency gap,” which measures how many votes of the minority party are wasted as a result of unfavorably drawn districts.
Anything over 7 percent is considered gerrymandering strong enough to “to entrench the majority,” according to a formula used, in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, to argue that Wisconsin’s district were unfair.
After Tuesday, the efficiency gap fell from 22.8 percent to 12.8 percent for the state Senate, 15.5 to 11.5 for the congressional delegation, but it rose from 10.1 percent to 10.6 percent for the state House delegation.
Voters want to end gerrymandering
While the Legislature remains in firm Republican control, voters Tuesday also approved Proposal 2 that will take the map-making duties away from legislators and put it in the hands of an independent citizens commission.
The commission is set to begin after the 2020 Census, so the first election with its districts will be 2022.
What the 13-member panel, comprised of Democrats, Republicans and Independents, will find is a state that geographically favors Republicans, Lupher said.
Even though Democrats have swept statewide offices, many of those votes came from relatively small geographic areas – Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint.
Indeed, excluding Detroit, Republican Tom Leonard on Tuesday would have beaten Democrat Dana Nessel by 60,000 votes to become attorney general.
But Nessel was pushed to victory by a 167,000-vote win in Detroit.
But while those same loyal Democratic voters helped elect more than a dozen House members, typically with 90 percent of the vote, they cannot help a Democrat running for a state house seat in Alpena or Escanaba, Lupher said.
On the same week voters spoke at the ballot box about gerrymandering, a federal judge could decide Friday whether a lawsuit can proceed that seeks to declare the 2010 districts unconstitutional.
The League of Women Voters of Michigan is suing Secretary of State Ruth Johnson over the 2011 redistricting, alleging it is unconstitutional. Lawyers for Johnson have sought to dismiss the case, brought by Brewer.
The suit has unearthed a trove of emails showing Republicans met in secret and drew maps to help them win elections for years to come.
One email, from a top aide to former GOP Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, suggested drawing boundaries in southeast Michigan to “cram ALL of the Dem garbage” in four congressional districts. Another bragged a district was drawn to give an incumbent Democrat “the finger,” while consultants vowed the lines would give the GOP a majority for years to come.
“We’ve spent a lot of time providing options to ensure we have a solid 9-5 delegation in 2012 and beyond,” one 2011 email from Robert LaBrant, a retired Michigan Chamber of Commerce executive reads.
(The prediction proved accurate for three election cycles, but Democrats pulled even to 7-7 on Tuesday.)
LaBrant is a founder of the Michigan Redistricting Resource Institute, a dark money group that evidence uncovered in the lawsuit shows paid $1 million in consultant and lawyer fees for the 2011 redistricting.
Lawyers for Johnson have argued the process is apolitical and the emails are out of context. They seek to dismiss the case, arguing the suit has come far too late and the League of Women Voters can’t prove lasting damages.
Bridge reporter Jim Malewitz contributed
Related Michigan Proposal 2 coverage:
- One woman’s Facebook post leads to Michigan vote against gerrymandering
- Michigan ballot issues: What to know about Prop 2 (redistricting)
- 5 concerns about Michigan’s redistricting proposal and what to make of them
- Here’s how Michigan’s redistricting commission would work
- California’s redistricting commission has some free advice for Michigan
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