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How a shadow Republican group gerrymandered Michigan – sparking a backlash

Equal votes, big wins

Michigan is fairly evenly divided among Democratic and Republican voters, but GOP lawmakers have commanding majorities in the Legislature and state delegation to Congress. Here’s a look at the disparities between votes and seat shares.


Update: Expert testifies gerrymandering in Michigan is worse than almost anywhere
Feb. 4, 2019: New emails show Michigan GOP used maps to consolidate Republican power
Nov. 30 update: Michigan gerrymandering trial on for February; court cites ‘profound’ bias
Nov. 8 update: Gerrymandered districts help Republicans keep control of Michigan Legislature
Nov. 7 update: One woman’s Facebook post leads to Michigan vote against gerrymandering
Update: Emails: Michigan Republicans brag that redistricting ‘protects incumbents’

Michigan Republicans regularly pull off a neat mathematical feat at the ballot box: Every two years, they earn about the same or fewer statewide votes as Democrats, but maintain overwhelming majorities in Congress and the state Legislature.

How? In part through political maps that were drawn with help from untraceable money from a nonprofit unknown to even many Lansing insiders: The Michigan Redistricting Resource Institute, which has no staff, a no-frills website and a post-office box for an address.

The group describes itself as nonpartisan and “committed to raising public awareness” about redistricting. In fact, it was helmed by executives from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and paid $1 million to private GOP consultants to draw political districts in 2011 that favored Republicans during the once-a-decade process, court documents and interviews show with a new level of detail.

The nonprofit paid for more than 2,500 hours over the course of one year for legal, mapmaking and other consulting work on behalf of Michigan’s “House and Republican caucuses,” according to the nonprofit’s own admissions and invoices, uncovered in a pending federal lawsuit challenging the legislative boundaries.  

“Anyone who says that maps aren’t important, they are bullshitting you. That’s why everyone wants to draw them.” — Rick Johnson, former Republican Speaker of the House

The districts were drawn in private, then presented and approved by the Legislature in a flurry of hearings over 12 days in June 2011, state records show.

“It’s an amazing return on your investment: $1 million to keep control for 10 years,” said David Daley, a senior fellow at FairVote, a nonpartisan group that advocates nationally for electoral reforms and supports proposed changes to how Michigan draws its political districts.

Rich Studley
Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said he is frustrated with the state’s communication efforts on COVID work rules. (Submitted photo)

“In politics $1 million is chump change,” said Daley, who critiqued Michigan’s redistricting system in his 2016 book, “Ratf@@ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.” “What Republicans understand is that a little bit of money pays dividends over an entire decade.”

The full details of how business interests and GOP insiders shaped Michigan’s political boundaries behind closed doors has emerged in recent months through evidence and depositions in an ongoing federal lawsuit in Detroit. The suit alleges state political maps are unfairly manipulated to Republican advantage.

Some facts already have come to light, particularly through Bridge reporting this summer about the Michigan Chamber of Commerce’s influence in redistricting. New details included in legal documents are pulling the curtain back further on the outsized role the Michigan Redistricting Resource Institute and private consultants played in the process.

Would I say that we participated in a gerrymandering effort? No. Have we been involved in discussions every 10 years about redistricting? Yes.” — Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Studley

Ongoing disclosures in the federal lawsuit come at a timely moment in the statewide debate about how Michigan’s political lines should be drawn. On Nov. 6,  voters will decide the “Voters Not Politicians” ballot initiative that seeks to take mapmaking decisions out of state politicians’ hands by creating an independent redistricting commission.

‘We outsource everything’

Gerrymandering ‒ the manipulation of legislative districts to favor one party over another ‒ is an old trick used by both major political parties since the 19th century.

Recent studies by the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan as well as Bridge’s own analysis based on testing in other states found that Michigan’s political boundaries are now among the most biased in the nation to favor Republicans.

In the past three election cycles, only one out of 42 Michigan congressional races and fewer than 1 in 20 state legislative races have been competitive, studies have found.

Southfield attorney Mark Brewer, who was chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party during last two rounds of redistricting, brought the lawsuit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Michigan and 11 Democrats.

The suit was filed against Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and a host of current and former GOP lawmakers. Michael Carvin, a prominent conservative who helped fight the 2000 Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case that propelled George W. Bush to the presidency, represents Johnson.

Republicans say the lawsuit is the work of sore losers intent on avenging their election  losses. The GOP contends state political maps are fair and election results reflect the quality of their candidates and power of incumbency.

They don’t apologize for outsourcing parts of redistricting to private specialists, saying that businesses do it all time.

“We outsource everything,” said Randy Richardville, a Monroe Republican who was Senate majority leader during the 2011 redistricting process.

“Let the people who are good do the work, the experts.”

Richardville said he didn’t pay close attention to redistricting at the time. As part of a handshake deal to gain support to become majority leader in 2011, Richardville said he agreed to allow then-freshman Republican Sen. Joe Hune, Fowlerville, to oversee the redistricting process. Hune didn’t return phone calls.

Interviews and court documents indicate the real mastermind of redistricting was Robert LaBrant, a Republican strategist, executive with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and a board member of the Redistricting Institute.

A longtime Lansing insider, LaBrant has been glib about his partisanship. His memoir, “PAC-Man,” describes how he helped the Michigan Chamber “influence the redistricting process” to build Republican power.

“Redistricting is a whole lot easier if one political party holds the governor’s office and both houses of the state Legislature,” LaBrant wrote. “We had that situation going for us in 2001 and again in 2011.”

He declined an interview request from Bridge, citing the federal lawsuit.

‘We had good maps’

Redistricting of House, Senate and state congressional boundaries is done every 10 afters after the Census to account for population changes and to ensure legislative districts are roughly equal in size. In Michigan, the process is controlled by the majority party in Lansing, which in recent elections has been Republicans.

It’s an important process –  and “completely sucks,” said Rick Johnson, who oversaw redistricting as the Republican speaker of the Michigan House in 2001.

“This is by far the worst thing you have to do as a leader,” Johnson said. “You make nobody happy and everyone mad. Everyone wants something. It doesn’t matter if it was a safe Republican seat or a contested one. Everyone wants more.”

In 2000, the year before Johnson became speaker, Republicans had a 58-52 majority in the Michigan House. In 2002, after redistricting, Republicans increased control to 63-47.

“Every staffer’s political future, every representative’s political future depended on how the lines turned out, and you constantly had people coming up with these crazy ideas of what their districts should look like.” — Dan McMaster, former director Michigan House Republican Campaign Committee

The Republican majority grew even as voters across the state essentially split: Overall, Republican House candidates received less than 1 percentage point more votes than Democrats in statewide House races, 21,351 votes out of 3 million cast.

“We had good candidates. But we also had good maps as well. Anyone who says different, that maps aren’t important, they are bullshitting you,” Johnson said.

“That’s why everyone wants to draw them.”

Good maps achieve twin goals, Johnson said: they tilt the advantage to the party designing them, but avoid doing so in such a blatant way as to invite a lawsuit.

In a seemingly cooperative gesture in 2001, Johnson said he invited Democrats to draw their own districts in Detroit where Republicans couldn’t compete anyway. That placated local Democrats whose safe seats became even safer, even as the state’s overall maps were drawn to favor Republicans, he said.

“The Democrats will eat their young to provide a seat for a friend,” Johnson told Bridge.

Joe Schwarz, a former Republican congressman, who was in the state Senate at the time, recalls the lack of legislative debate about the maps.

“The vast majority of legislators had the plan dropped in front of them the morning of the final vote with instructions of ‘Good morning, vote yes, move on,’” said Schwarz of Battle Creek.

“The Legislature –  myself included – didn’t do our job.”

[Disclosure: Schwarz now serves as an unpaid member of the steering committee to Bridge Magazine’s parent organization, The Center for Michigan, as well as on the board of Voters Not Politicians, the group proposing to reform redistricting.]

It was a compromised process but the worst was to come 10 years later, said Mark Grebner, a Democratic consultant in Lansing.

“The Republicans weren’t quite so gutsy during redistricting in 2000, they had more duty to the law,” he said.

“In 2010, that was another story.”

Birth of the Redistricting Institute

One difference between 2001 and 2011: The emergence of the Michigan Redistricting Resource Institute, founded in 2005 by LaBrant, the longtime Michigan Chamber executive.

The institute was an offshoot of another LaBrant group, the Michigan Reapportionment Fund, which began in 1989 because “many legislative elections were stacked against us” in earlier decades when Democrats controlled redistricting, LaBrant wrote in his book.

The institute’s incorporation papers with the IRS claim its mission is to “promote common good,” protect voting rights and “conduct research … concerning fair redistricting.”

In fact, depositions and invoices in the federal lawsuit indicate it exists to help Republicans.

“We would create a non-profit corporation with a 527 tax-exempt status,” LaBrant wrote of the institute. “It could accept corporate funds. Those funds would not have to be disclosed.”

IRS records show the nonprofit raised about $1 million from anonymous sources for the 2011 redistricting. Over the years, LaBrant and another Chamber executive, Jim Holcomb presided over the institute.

Emails uncovered in the League of Women Voters lawsuit shows LaBrant using his Michigan Chamber email to solicit bids from contractors for the 2011 redistricting process.

Chamber President Rich Studley would not answer questions from Bridge about whether the chamber contributed financially to the institute beyond a statement saying the chamber “reports and discloses contributions as required by law.”

Studley also told Bridge that Holcomb has since resigned from the institute, and said the nonprofit’s work is separate from the chamber’s mission.

LaBrant retired from the chamber in 2012, and Studley said any work LaBrant and Holcomb did for the MRRI was voluntary.

“The MRRI has never been located at the Michigan Chamber and is not affiliated with the Michigan Chamber,” Studley said.

His description contrasts with LaBrant’s memoir, which says his work with the chamber helped Republicans because “the odds were stacked against us (Republicans).”

“I was looking for a mechanism for the Michigan Chamber to influence the redistricting process,” LaBrant wrote. “I found it.”

‘Crazy ideas’ for districts

Like many others who spoke to Bridge, Grebner said he never heard of the Michigan Redistricting Resource Institute even though he’s worked in state politics nearly 50 years.

But he knows LaBrant.

“Bob LaBrant, with one hand behind his back, beat the Democrats again and again,” Grebner said.

In 2011, after the U.S. Census, Republicans in Michigan had all the advantages. They controlled all the branches of government ‒ House and Senate, executive branch and judiciary ‒ with the election of Rick Snyder as governor and the re-election of two conservative state Supreme Court judges the year before.

That gave Republicans a veto-proof majority: In three earlier redistricting efforts, after the Census of 1970, 1980 and 1990, courts were forced to step in and draw district lines when Republicans and Democrats couldn’t agree.

Emails and depositions introduced as evidence in the League of Women Voters lawsuit indicate there was pressure and urgency coming from Republicans.

“Every staffer’s political future, every representative’s political future depended on how the lines turned out, and you constantly had people coming up with these crazy ideas of what their districts should look like,” Dan McMaster, former director of the Michigan House Republican Campaign Committee, said in a deposition recently cited in the suit.  

Because of population losses, Michigan’s congressional delegation shrunk from 15 to 14. Emails and depositions show bartering over the maps.

In one string of emails already made public, LaBrant and Republican consultants discussed drawing the 4th Congressional District to appease the wishes of incumbent Dave Camp, a Midland Republican who has since retired.

“We will accommodate whatever Dave wants in his district,” LaBrant wrote in an email on May 11, 2011. “We’ve spent a lot of time providing options to ensure we have a solid 9-5 delegation in 2012 and beyond.”

Others involved included attorneys from the Dickinson Wright law firm who had counseled the Michigan Republican Party for decades, and GOP strategists from the Sterling Corporation, including Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the state GOP and longtime redistricting collaborator with LaBrant.

Other emails showed:

  • A GOP staffer discussing drawing districts to “cram ALL the Dem garbage” into four southeast Michigan districts in order to meet the “obvious objective – putting dems in a dem district and reps in a gop district.”
  • Another GOP staffer joking about the oddly shaped 9th Congressional District in a corner of Macomb County that jutted up “between Mound and Vandyke (sic) down to 15 mile … perfect. it’s giving the finger” to incumbent Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak.
  • LaBrant rejected a map that would give Republicans a 10-4 majority in the state congressional delegation, writing in an email on May 26, 2011: “We need for legal and PR purposes a good looking map that did not look like an obvious gerrymander.”

To be sure, Michigan House and Senate Republican staffers also worked on the process. In a deposition for the League of Women Voters lawsuit, a GOP Senate staffer, Terry Marquardt, acknowledged he considered past election results to draw the maps.

“Senators obviously would be interested in knowing whether their districts got better or worse,” Marquardt said, according to a recent court filing in the case.

Congressional Republican staffers also kept tabs on the GOP insiders’ handicraft.  

“It is simply clear as we have discussed before that when you start trying too hard in one location that it has a cascading affect (sic) across the state,” Jamie Roe, chief of staff for then-Republican Congresswoman Candice Miller, wrote LaBrant and Timmer in May 2011. “I can’t believe how quickly Jeff gets the changes made.”

The redistricting process largely played out behind closed doors. Despite Democratic demands for more debate, hearings were often perfunctory, records show. One House committee received and approved redistricting legislation after a total of six minutes of discussion.

When it came time to vote in the Senate, the actual bill describing the districts totaled 120 pages of census tracts numbers that were all but indecipherable to those who were not steeped in the particulars of how the maps were designed.

Hune, who handled redistricting for the Senate, told the legislative news site Gongwer that the process was “the epitome of transparency.”

Others reached different conclusions.

“When all was said and done, the lines that were decided upon were not proposed by legislators; rather, (they were) done in a backroom hidden process,” said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, a Democrat and minority member of the House redistricting committee in 2011.

Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said: “We’ve privatized our redistricting process – privatized how we organized governance of our state.”

Richardville, then the Senate majority leader for Republicans, explained that lawmakers relied on consultants because several Senate members had just been elected and redistricting wasn’t a top priority for most.

“We had a very inexperienced Legislature. There weren’t a lot of people who had been through it before,” Richardville said.

Still, he noted that three Senate Democrats also voted for the maps, and a federal court panel approved them.

“It’s hard to say the districts were that bad when so many people voted for them,” he said, adding that he believes Brewer’s federal suit is sour grapes.

“You lose all these seats” he said of complaining Democrats, “and this is a way to say, ‘It wasn’t my fault.’”

3,000 maps. None as gerrymandered

Brewer stepped down after 18 years as Democratic Party chairman in 2013.

Since then, new tests have emerged in an effort to quantify gerrymandering through a term known as the “efficiency gap,” which shows how many votes are “wasted” when districts “pack” one party’s voters into as few as possible, or “crack” them by spreading the minority party into multiple districts where they would remain a minority.

By that measure, Michigan districts have “the most extreme measures of bias” in the nation, along with North Carolina and Pennsylvania, according to a 2017 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

One of Brewer’s witnesses in the suit, University of Michigan political science professor Jowei Chen, ran 3,000 computer simulations to randomly draw Michigan 2011 political boundaries.

Every last one was less gerrymandered than the districts Michigan lawmakers adopted in 2011, according to papers Chen submitted in the lawsuit.

Since the case was filed last year, courts have struck down maps in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia as unfairly drawn by GOP majorities, while the U.S. Supreme Court has heard cases (but sidestepped rulings) on the constitutionality of maps that favored Democrats in Maryland and Republicans in Wisconsin.

Michigan is now one of four states, along with Colorado, Missouri and Utah, in which voters will decide this fall whether to convene an independent commission to oversee state redistricting.

The Voters Not Politicians proposal is opposed by political action committees affiliated with the Michigan Chamber, which donated $135,000 by August to Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, which fought to keep the measure off the ballot.

The Michigan Chamber’s legislative scorecards indicate wide success since the new maps took effect in 2012. The House and Senate have passed 70 chamber-backed bills, most notably the 2013 passage of “right to work” legislation that prohibits union membership as a condition of employment.

By 2014, Republicans had widened their dominance in the Senate to a 27-11 supermajority. A key GOP mapmaker couldn’t help crowing about it.

“Breaking: MI Senate Dems to caucus in former broom closet,” Timmer, the GOP redistricting strategist, tweeted afterward. “#27GOP11Dems.”

Nonetheless, Studley, the chamber president, has said his group wants to influence policy but doesn’t encourage gerrymandering to advance its agenda.

“Would I say that we participated in a gerrymandering effort? No,” Studley told Bridge in July. “Have we been involved in discussions every 10 years about redistricting? Yes.”

But for Johnson, the former House speaker, enough is enough. He is one of a handful of Republicans to come out in favor of the Voters Not Politicians initiative.

“All this fighting. All this money. It’s not good,” Johnson told Bridge. “We need to change.”  

Bridge reporters Riley Beggin and Alexandra Schmidt contributed

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