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Michigan House redistricting maps survive suit claiming GOP ‘advantage’

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LANSING—Political maps created by Michigan’s new independent citizen redistricting commission have survived another legal challenge, leaving one unresolved federal lawsuit still looming ahead of the rapidly approaching fall elections. 

The Michigan Supreme Court on Friday denied a request to force the commission to redraw state House maps. Without allowing a hearing first, justices rejected a lawsuit by the League of Women voters and other advocacy groups that argued the House maps gave a "disproportionate partisan advantage” to Republican candidates.

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The Michigan Constitution, as amended by voters in 2018 when they approved the independent commission, directed the commission to produce maps with no clear partisan advantage to any one political party. 

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But that’s just one of several requirements the commission was expected to meet. Others include “higher priority criteria” such as keeping “communities of interest” intact within districts, Justice Megan Cavanagh wrote in a concurring opinion joined by Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, both Democratic nominees.

The commission considered analysis from hired experts, revised plans to reduce partisan advantage and ultimately chose to “balance partisan fairness with other higher-order constitutional criteria, including its consideration of the identified communities of interest in Flint and the Chaldean community,” Cavanagh wrote as the court declined to hold a hearing on the suit. 

The commission map, set to be used for the first time this fall, gives Republican candidates a 56-54 advantage in state House districts, according to a Bridge analysis of recent presidential results. 

New Michigan House 'Hickory’ map

Slight advantage: The citizens' commission also adopted its ‘Hickory’ map for the state House, which leans 56-54 Republican, based on recent presidential election results. Republicans now have an advantage in 58 of 110 districts.

Note: Light green districts have no current incumbent; dark green is open because current senator is term-limited; orange have one and purple have two. Black circles represent homes of current members of House who are eligible to run again.

Source: Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, Bridge Michigan analysis

That’s narrower than the current 58–52 GOP advantage under maps drawn by the Republican-led Legislature in 2011 and which were in place during the 2020 election cycle.

In a dissent, Justice Elizabeth Welch, joined by Richard Bernstein, the other two Democratic nominees on the seven-member court, said the majority made a mistake by declining to hear the case rather than digging into the arguments.

Statistical models from Washington University political scientist Christoper Warshaw suggest "the adopted plan will effectively prevent the Democratic Party from obtaining a majority in the state House except in wave election years," Welch wrote. 

"By failing to engage in a meaningful examination of what the law requires, the Court invites a watered-down approach that may ultimately frustrate the intentions of the more than 60% of Michigan voters who supported the prohibition of partisan gerrymandering."

Friday’s Michigan Supreme Court decision is the latest in a series of legal victories for the bipartisan redistricting commission, whose 13 members completed state House and Senate as well as congressional map-making duties for the decade in December, but have cited ongoing litigation as one reason they have not yet disbanded.

Commission maps have so far survived a liberal lawsuit alleging they would illegally disenfranchise Black voters, and part of a Republican lawsuit alleging congressional maps did not adequately group "communities of interest."

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But that GOP lawsuit remains active in federal court, where a three-judge panel continues to consider whether congressional maps substantially comply with federal rules mandating approximately equal population sizes in each district. 

Barring court intervention, the legislative and congressional maps are set to become law this Sunday, March 27 and will be used for the first time in Aug. 2 primary elections. 

Candidates already positioning themselves for campaigns in the new-look districts must file to run by April 19.

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