Maps show how gerrymandering benefitted Michigan Republicans

In 2010, Lisa Brown barely survived her election to the 39th Michigan house district. A Democrat, she represented a Republican-leaning district in Oakland County. By 2012, Republicans had made the 39th a safe GOP seat –  and moved Brown’s home in a nearby district.

June 2019: What the U.S. Supreme Court gerrymandering ruling means for Michigan
June 2019: Reaction in Michigan to U.S. Supreme Court gerrymandering decision
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 29,2019: To fix maps, Republicans must please Whitmer and three irked judges
April 25, 2019: Michigan’s political districts illegally gerrymandered, court rules
Update: Expert testifies gerrymandering in Michigan is worse than almost anywhere

Maps are a powerful tool in war and peace. And in politics? Essential.

Just ask Michigan Republicans.

For the past two decades,  the GOP has been the official map maker of Michigan legislative districts. They’ve made the most of their opportunities, drawing legislative maps that helped preserve majorities in the state House and Senate and within the state’s congressional delegation, using strokes large and small, according to a Bridge Magazine analysis of precinct-level census and voting data.

Among Bridge’s findings: New boundaries after the 2010 U.S. Census were drawn to give Republicans an edge in: four additional seats in the 110-member state House; one additional seat in the 38-member state Senate, and keeping a secure 9-5 advantage in Congress. Perhaps more importantly, the redistricting strengthened GOP positions in already friendly Republican districts across the state.

In 2014, the GOP leveraged the redrawn districts to hit all its post-2010 election goals, despite getting just 50 percent of state Senate votes, 48.5 percent of all state House votes and 47.5 percent of all congressional votes.

How did they do it?

Using detailed data powered by computer software, Republicans expanded some districts, contracted others and merged some incumbent Democrats into single districts. They pushed Democratic-leaning precincts into secure Democratic areas, which created overwhelmingly Democratic districts while reducing the total count of Michigan districts where Democrats had an advantage.

Lisa Brown could be the poster child for redistricting. Now the clerk/register of deeds for Oakland County, she was the Democratic representative of the 39th district in the central part of the county, which in 2010 covered Commerce and West Bloomfield townships.

Brown won her seat in 2008 and again in 2010 and said she was the first and only Democrat to represent that part of the county. It wasn’t easy: In 2010, she won by fewer than 100 votes in a district that gave Republican Gov. Rick Snyder 63 percent of the vote that year.

Her victory didn’t go over well with Republicans, she said.

“All I ever heard was, ‘We want our seat back’,” said Brown.

Maps drawn after 2010 put her West Bloomfield home in another district: The heavily Republican 40th District to the east. It wasn’t unprecedented: Other incumbent Democrats also were drawn out of their own districts in 2011, as had happened in 2001 when redistricting was also under Republican control.

Democrat Lisa Brown won the 39th House District (Oakland County) in 2010. But the 2011 GOP redistricting removed a Democratic-leaning portion of eastern West Bloomfield (in blue on map, left) from the district (the blue striped area is part of the old and new district boundaries). The redrawn district also picked up predominantly Republican parts of Wixom and western West Bloomfield (in red on map, right). A Republican won the seat handily in 2012.

The new GOP legislative boundaries drawn in 2011 cut out eastern West Bloomfield, which had nearly 1,800 more Democrats (including Brown) than Republicans. And added Wixom, which had 1,100 more Republican voters than Democrats.

The GOP won the 39th District seat back in 2012 ‒ Republican Klint Kesto captured 53.2 percent to 46.8 percent for Democrat Pam Jackson. Brown instead opted to run for county office.

“It was very personal, it was very targeted,” Brown said.

Rules made to be broken

Every 10 years, following the U.S. Census, states, counties and municipalities have to redraw political boundaries to balance population. In Michigan, the state party in power controls the process, guided by a handful of rules, or best practices:

  • Don’t cross county boundaries (easier said than done in rural areas)
  • Keep cities, townships and villages together in districts
  • And have about as many people per district: 247,000 to 273,000 per Senate district and 85,300 to 94,300 for House districts.

Rules, of course, are meant to be broken.

During the Republican wave year of 2010, Republican state Sen. Tory Rocca won a central Macomb County seat, with 54.4 percent of the vote, just four years after a Democrat had won with 66 percent of the vote.

Republican Tory Rocca won the 10th Senate District (Macomb County) in 2010 with 54 percent of the vote. In redistricting, the district lost Utica, Roseville and parts of Clinton Township (in blue on map, left) that were majority Democratic. The new 10th (map, right) picked up Macomb Township (in red on map, right), which voted 2-1 for Republicans in 2010. Rocca won again in 2014 with over 62 percent of vote.

Armed with the ability to make new maps in 2011, the GOP made Rocca’s seat  safer and the district went from political “toss up” to solidly Republican. The new map split Clinton Township into two parts, with Rocca losing the more heavily Democratic portion.

Making Rocca’s seat safer meant moving some Democrats to other districts. Most were added to the 9th district to the south, represented by Democrat Steve Bieda.

Bieda, who represented Warren, Center Line, Fraser, Eastpointe and St. Clair Shores, had won in 2010, 54-43 percent. The new maps made his district more Democratic, adding nearly 3,000 more likely Democratic voters from Clinton Township. Bieda’s district also picked up heavily Democratic Roseville and jettisoned the Republican-leaning St. Clair Shores.

To keep the population even, Rocca’s district included the heavily Republican Macomb Township.

The result: Comfortable wins for both Rocca and Bieda in 2014, with each receiving more than 60 percent of the vote in new districts that cut across municipal lines (a supposed no-no of redistricting).

If Michigan Democrats were in control

It’s easy to imagine that if Democrats had been in charge they too would have drawn districts to partisan advantage. After all, Democrat-drawn maps were adopted by the Michigan Supreme Court (a redistricting commission couldn’t agree) following the 1960 and 1970 Census counts; those maps heavily favored Democrats.

Let’s look again at Macomb County. It supported Democratic President Obama in 2008 and 2012 before backing Republican President Trump in 2016. Its northern tier votes heavily Republican, and its southern tier typically votes Democrat.

Republicans rearranged the county in 2011 into three districts that gave the GOP two safe seats. Had Democrats been in charge, they could pretty easily change it to give one safe GOP seat and two toss ups.

GOP mapmakers in 2011 turned Macomb County into three senate districts, two of which were solidly Republican: the 8th and 10th.That map is on the left (the northeastern communities are part of a district that extends into St. Clair County). At right is how Democrats could have configured the same county to give them an advantage had they been in charge –  Districts 3 and 4 would lean Democratic, while 2 would be reliably Republican, and communities to the north could be combined with an existing, Republican-leaning district, in St. Clair or Lapeer counties.

Combine Warren, Center Line and Sterling Heights in one district. Pack the Democratic-heavy communities of Eastpointe, Roseville, Mount Clemens and Clinton Township into another. Pool most of the GOP-leaning townships and cities in the north, send a few others into districts in other counties and, voila, tables turned.

When a loss is a gain

Those who deny gerrymandering afflicts Michigan point to 2012. That’s when Republicans actually lost four House seats, just one year after adopting political districts that supposedly gave them an edge.

What gives?

Look closer, though, and it’s apparent Republicans actually could have suffered far greater losses, even losing control of the House had it not been for newly drawn 2011  maps.

Consider: Republican House candidates that year received just 45 percent of all votes (President Obama won by nearly 450,000 votes in Michigan) but still maintained a 59-51 majority statewide.

When the GOP redesigned the 110 state House districts in 2011, it strengthened its position in four districts by creating Republican-leaning seats in north Grand Rapids, Oakland County and central Macomb County –  and losing a district in Detroit, which is a Democratic stronghold. In 2010 Republicans (map, left) won 63 seats; the new map (map, right) show the party could have won 67 from the same results.

Bridge analyzed voting records and the maps pushed by Republicans in 2011 and found that Republicans went into the 2012 election with distinct advantages in 67 seats (like the redrawn 39th that Lisa Brown held), not just 63 they held.

Had the districts not changed to give Republicans wiggle room, they may have lost as many as eight seats, according to the Bridge analysis.

So redistricting gave Republicans a big cushion to withstand a wave of Democratic voters in 2012, allowing them to win 54 percent of House seats despite receiving less than half of the votes.

Doesn’t always work

GOP mapmakers also tried to create a potential Republican House district in Grand Rapids. In the 2010 election, both of the city’s House seats had gone Democratic.

But the redrawn seats split the population differently: the central city was packed into the redrawn 75th district and the 76th circled it from northwest to the southeast like half a donut.

The new 76th lost an area that had gone 70-26 for a Democrat and gained city areas that had gone 53-46 for Republicans.

Before the changes, one of the districts was overwhelmingly Democratic and the other had leaned slightly Democratic. After redistricting, there was still an overwhelmingly Democratic district but the 76th leaned slightly Republican.

That was the district that Democratic State Rep. Roy Schmidt lived in. Just prior to the 2012 election, however, Schmidt infamously switched parties, sparking an outcry among Democrats, who hadn’t put up a primary challenger and thus found themselves without a candidate in November.

Democratic complaints prompted a grand jury investigation.  Schmidt avoided prosecution, but not the wrath of Democrats. Winnie Brinks, a Democrat, beat him as a write-in candidate –  by over 21,000 votes. Brinks still holds the seat.

GOP mapmakers tried to turn one of two Democratic seats in Grand Rapids into a Republican seat. On the left is 76th House District in 2010.The light blue area would remain in the new 76th while the dark blue area, which voted 70 percent Democrat in 2010, was put in the 75th District in 2011. On the right is the new 76th district after the 2011 redistricting. The red area went 53-45 for Republican candidates in 2010.

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Tue, 09/25/2018 - 11:05am

At least Mike Wilson, the author of this article, has the decency to say that gerrymandering is no different if the democrats are in charge. Unless and until we get automated district drawing based on geometric principles, we will have gerrymandering. Prop 2 will only swing the advantage to the democrats side.

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 11:42am

How would a system, that explicitly gives neither party control, favor the Democrats?

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 1:24pm

Todd, One of several problems is with the claimed "Independents" on this commission. It is always amazing to me how many self proclaimed "Independents" haven't voted for a Republican for a major office in 20 years. Most of them whine that if only Bill Milliken or a Colin Powell (a possible Republican presidential candidate) or Joe Schwartz (now endorsing Whitmer!), were running they'd vote for them. Their vision is for a center left party (Republicans) and a further left/socialist party, Democrats, and it is very clear where this compromise goes. Further it is pure crap that someone without enough interest to define their positions and accompanying political alignment is suddenly going to want to be on this commission as an independent - a big BS to that. They should be put on a polygraph and state who they voted for in the last 5 presidential elections! Even the Voters not Politicians crowd can't even be honest enough to admit that they're almost entirely a bunch of Democrats (along with a Milliken Republican or two)! They're already itching to sign up as independents! Is someone claiming to be a Socialist or Libertarian Party voter be ok to sign up as a "Independent"commissioner?

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 7:00pm

It's telling that you aren't equally concerned about Republicans claiming to be Independents

Dan Marvin
Wed, 09/26/2018 - 9:19am

Matt: First a disclaimer: I have voted Democrat almost exclusively since the Clinton presidency where I believe the GOP started down it's current very dark path against my country and believe some day it will swing back to sanity and may once again vote for a Republican who leads by example and has common sense behind him or her.

Regarding Gerrymandering, you can complain all you want about who's in power and how those in power will Gerrymander - I agree with you! It has been true since 1788 when Governor Gerry of Massachusetts first proposed the idea and when the map of the new districts beginning in 1790 looked like a salamander complete with legs and a tail, it was nicknamed Gerrymander by reporters.

The founders and writers of the constitution in all it's wisdom failed in a number of areas. While they envisioned population changes as the country grew and therefore representation will also need a mechanism for change so every 10 years a redistricting must happen. They totally left it up to the states to decide on the process which as you can see is why we're arguing today.

The Canadians and other countries have dealt with this and we are actually coming late tot he game. Any logical solution to this should NEVER allow any particular party to perform this task. As we all know: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely!"

So lets get on with it and vote yes on proposal 2 and quit bickering as to how people, who may volunteer for this very important work, vote!

Le Roy G. Barnett
Sun, 09/30/2018 - 7:58am

Matt says that any applicant to the boundary commission claiming to be an independent should "be put on a polygraph and state who they voted for in the last 5 presidential elections!" This test would apparently prove whether or not they are genuinely neutral. However, when a woman who accuses a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court of attempting to rape her--and passes a "lie detector" test--Republicans discount the value of the polygraph. The TRUTH is, the GOP will never accept any plan or proposal that diminishes their power, even if the idea leads to a fairer political system.

Mike Wilkinson
Tue, 09/25/2018 - 2:42pm


Thanks. For more evidence, look to Maryland, Illinois. Yes, whoever's in power has used that to strengthen their hold. GOP just has the current upper hand.

gop corruption
Wed, 10/31/2018 - 2:50pm

So you the current gop gerrymandering is corrupt

Tue, 09/25/2018 - 11:08am

Correction: the 76th is represented by Winnie BRINKS. (She is term-limited out this year, so to continue her service, she's running for the state senate.)

Joel Kurth
Tue, 09/25/2018 - 11:30am

Fixed! Thanks so much!

Thomas E Graham
Tue, 10/02/2018 - 1:07pm

Good video about this
Proposal 2 is a God Awful and racist proposal. It will reduce the number of Black districts in favor of Democrat districts and the Democrats think that is just dandy.
Government employees overwhelmingly donate to Democrats.
10,000 applications judged eligible by government employees
4 reps and 4 dems and 5 supposedly independents, judged independent subjectively by the applicant reviewers (government employees)
Selected "randomly" by government employees
Trained to draw maps in an unbiased fashion by government employees
Can keep their jobs indefinitely making over $45k/year.
Can hire "unbiased" mapping consultants.
No stipulation of when the maps need to be done and no plan of what to do if the maps aren't done in time for the next election.
All people who have held an elected position (as low as precinct delegate) and their families are not eligible to be selected. Why aren't we also excluding all government employees including teachers?
And none of the PROs of gerrymandering are mentioned.
1) Blacks and minorities get more representation at the federal level
2) Non-competitive districts means less campaign money taken from special interests
3) Seniority kept at federal level in non-competitive districts.

Wed, 10/03/2018 - 8:04am

I am an Independent. I have voted for a number of moderated Republicans over my lifetime and I know many moderate Republicans that have now left their Party. The problem with Gerrymandering is that it leads to the consolidation of power, especially in today's world of computer algorithms. Gerrymandering is no longer a subjective process but one that is becoming more precise. I guarantee that whichever party gets to Gerrymander the districts in 2021 will be in power for more than a generation and as an Independent, I find that scary. The writers of the Constitution were concerned about any group of people having too much power. That is why there are three branches of Government. It is also why, as an Independent, I will be voting only for Democrats this election. There is no balance in our Government today. Republicans control everything and that is dangerous. I would have the same problem if Democrats were in total control. Proposition 2 may not be perfect. But given the difficulty in writing this proposal, it is remarkably well done and it will certainly make politics in Michigan considerably fairer. I know many Independents who tend to be conservatives and their ranks have grown since Trump's election. Choosing 5 Independents for balance will be possible. There are also rules built into the proposition that will keep the more radical Gerrymandering from being a possibility. Bridge Magazine has done a remarkable job investigating redistricting in Michigan showing how egregious the last redistricting was accomplished. If you are a Republican who thinks Proposition 2 is a bad thing, vote against it at your own peril.

Tue, 11/06/2018 - 11:29pm

You claim to be an independant, but you are voting for all democrats this election? Are you really an independant? See the issue here.

Al Kloha
Wed, 10/10/2018 - 8:49pm

I cannot understand how it would be less pollical to have the 13 commissioners appointed by the political office of Sec of State. One person to appoint all 13 commissioners and after they are appointed, they are not answerable to anyone, and cannot be voted out of the commission. Their maps would not be able to be questioned in the courts. The costs will be outrageous and not subjected to legislative control. Millions of state residents won't be able to serve just because a family member happens to be involved in some way with a political party or person running for a office. I can see major problems with this proposal. The first time a republican Sec of State appoints the commissioners we will hear the same crying from the democrats about it being unfair and a stacked deck. They would not remember that they wanted the change.

gop Corruption
Wed, 10/31/2018 - 2:49pm


Wed, 10/31/2018 - 2:56pm

1. NO past or current politcian should be allowed anywhere near the maps creating.
2. ALL MAPs should be by township and range only anything else is CORRUPTION.
3. NO GOV or group or corporation, church or business should be allowed near any map creating.
4. see 2.

Wed, 10/31/2018 - 3:00pm

The only fair way to draw voters maps is by