Michigan Republicans sue to stop redistricting commission before it starts


A newly created Michigan redistricting commission would include 13 members — four from each majority party and five who don’t identify with either. The commission was approved by 61 percent of voters statewide in November. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

A group of Michigan Republicans filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday seeking to block the state’s voter-approved redistricting commission, saying it unconstitutionally blocks some residents from serving.

The suit ‒ filed by Michigan Freedom Fund Executive Director Tony Daunt, state Sen. Tom Barrett, Board of State Canvassers member Norm Shinkle and other prominent Republicans ‒ contends the rules governing who can serve on the commission unfairly exclude certain people with political or partisan roles and their family members.

They’ve asked a federal judge to stop Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson from proceeding to seat the commission and, further, invalidate the entire commission. 

“This is a fundamental question of Michigan citizens’ ability to participate in the political process without being punished for that participation,” Daunt told Bridge Magazine in an interview Tuesday.

“This commission flips that on its head and says if you’re already engaged, if you’re already active, you’re not allowed to serve on this and neither are your family members,” he said. “Of everything, I think that’s the most egregious and ridiculous part of that. Simply by virtue of being married to someone who is (politically active) you’re prohibited, even if you have 180-degree-opposed political beliefs.”

Jamie Lyons-Eddy, director of campaigns and a founding member of Voters Not Politicians, the group behind the ballot drive that created the commission,  suggested Tuesday the lawsuit is a political power play and said VNP is confident the commission will survive the legal challenge. 

“It’s no surprise that politicians – who directly benefit from drawing their own election maps and choosing their own voters – want to undermine the voice of voters again,” Lyons-Eddy said in a statement. “Now that citizens are in charge of a fair, impartial, and transparent redistricting process, we know that some politicians who will lose power to draw maps in secret for their own benefit will make a last-ditch effort to hold on to it.”

Benson, the only named defendant in the suit, also released a statement saying her office remains determined to carry on efforts to establish the commission. 

"Voters spoke loud and clear last November that they want an independent, citizen-led commission ‒ not partisan politicians ‒ responsible for drawing district lines," her statement said. "My office will stay focused on engaging the public and encouraging full participation in a transparent application and random selection process for this commission, which has the opportunity to map Michigan's future."

A state constitutional amendment requiring the creation of a redistricting commission was approved by more than 60 percent of Michigan voters last November. It calls for the creation of a 13-member commission comprising four Republicans, four Democrats and five people unaffiliated with either party who will be responsible for drawing legislative and congressional districts in Michigan following the 2020 U.S. Census. 

Currently, lawmakers in whichever party controls the state Legislature drew state political lines, leading to charges of political gerrymandering. That system appears destined to stay in place through the 2020 elections.  

Tony Daunt, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by Michigan Republicans asking a court to strike down the new independent redistricting commission statewide voters approved in November. He argues it violates the plaintiffs’ U.S. constitutional rights. “This is a fundamental question of Michigan citizens’ ability to participate in the political process without being punished for that participation,” Daunt told Bridge.

In a stated effort to reduce political influence, the constitutional amendment creating the commission excluded several categories of people from serving. That includes anyone who has been, within the last six years: 

  • A partisan candidate or elected official in local, state or federal government
  • An officer in a political party
  • A consultant or employee for a political candidate, campaign or political action committee 
  • State and federal legislative staffers
  • State and federal registered lobbyists and their employees
  • Unclassified state employees, except those who work for public universities, the courts or the armed forces
  • The parent, child or spouse of any of the above people, including stepparents and children

Voters Not Politicians argued the exclusions were necessary to prevent people with significant political interests or connections from manipulating the process to advantage one party over another.

But the GOP plaintiffs argue the exclusions are heavy-handed and violate their rights under the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“There is not a sufficient ‘fit’ between the exclusion of Plaintiffs and the asserted interests of transparency, impartiality, and fairness that motivated the establishment of the Commission,” the suit reads. “In particular, the selection system may actually inhibit transparency, impartiality, and fairness because eligible applicants may be no less partisan than those who fall into the excluded categories.”

Plaintiffs contend that the First Amendment grants them the right to political association and the 14th protects them from discrimination — such as exclusion from a paid government position that is offered to others — for exercising that association.

By excluding residents with recent political backgrounds or ties, “the State has unconstitutionally conditioned eligibility for a valuable benefit on their willingness to limit their First Amendment right to petition government,” plaintiffs wrote.

“The exclusionary factors also violate the Equal Protection Clause because they burden only individuals that fall into set categories that may indicate partisan bias, while imposing no restriction on individuals who may be just as partisan, or more partisan.”

Daunt estimated at least a half-million people would be barred from serving on the commission under the new rules. That’s “a conservative estimate,” he said, based on how many people are active in state and county parties and lobbying activities, multiplied by how many people are in the average family.

The lawsuit is supported by the Fair Lines America Foundation, a Virginia-based nonprofit that is involved in national redistricting efforts, according to a statement Tuesday from Scott Walker, finance chairman of the National Republican Redistricting Trust and the former Wisconsin governor.

"No American should be barred from holding a government position because they, or someone they are related to, exercised their Constitutional rights," Walker's statement reads. "This lawsuit aims to restore the rights of all Michiganders to freely participate in the political process without the threat of government sanction."

The U.S. Supreme Court last month ruled that federal courts have no role in determining when partisan gerrymandering – the process of drawing legislative and congressional maps to favor one political party over another – has occurred, leaving the process in the hands of states and Congress. That decision effectively killed a similar federal case pending in Michigan related to this state’s 2011 redistricting process.

Daunt said that high court decision didn’t deter his group from filing in federal court because the legal questions put forward in the suit filed Tuesday are fundamentally different.

“That case was about lines and how they’re drawn,” Daunt said, whereas this case questions whether people can be excluded from serving on the redistricting commission. Federal court is the appropriate avenue, he said, because the suit deals with U.S. constitutional protections.

Eric Lupher, president of the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan, agreed that the suit filed Tuesday addresses a different question than the recent federal gerrymandering cases in North Carolina and Maryland.

A lawsuit that contends someone’s U.S. constitutional rights were violated must be addressed in federal courts, said Lupher, who also noted that he had not yet read the complaint. 

“My gut reaction is that it’s apples and oranges, it’s two different matters,” Lupher told Bridge. 

But Lupher also cited some vulnerabilities in Republicans’ lawsuit arguments. 

He noted, for instance, that the commission exclusions are not a lifetime ban on participation, just for a number of years. Nor is eligibility for the commission a guarantee an applicant will be chosen. With legislators from each party able to strike people from the pool of potential commissioners, lawmakers and  lobbyists “would probably be some of the first targeted for elimination from the pool if they were eligible to participate,” he said.

Justin Long, an associate professor at Wayne State University Law School who focuses on state constitutional issues and federal courts, told Bridge that the U.S. Supreme Court's majority ruling in the Maryland and North Carolina gerrymandering cases was in part based on what the justices determined was the lack of a clear legal standard to decide when gerrymandering had occurred.

It would be difficult to argue that a standard doesn't exist to interpret law in this new Michigan case, Long said.

"It’s not about whether gerrymandering is required or permitted or prohibited," he added. "It’s simply about, here is a state office, a high-ranking important state office with control over a topic that the Supreme Court has said is extremely political, and do we as individuals have a right to be considered for that office?"

And while the plaintiffs could have filed their case in state court, Long said, it's possible they chose federal court out of concern that state judges might be more favorable to the Michigan constitution, and because "state judges are elected and the (redistricting) constitutional amendment was and is enormously popular."

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Tue, 07/30/2019 - 2:06pm

"Michigan Republicans sue to stop redistricting commission before it starts". Isn't it logical that the opponents of this ballot would sue to stop this only if and after it passed?

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 8:24am

I believe there was a lot of uninformed voters this passed election! People that never voted came out to vote to legalize pot voted for other things they had no idea what they were voting for!

Paul Jordan
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 2:09pm

Nope, we knew exactly what we were voting for.

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 3:41pm

So, are you saying people don't want fair and ethical elections??? I'm guessing your a Republican or you have no idea what "you" are talking about.

Fri, 08/02/2019 - 8:49am

Really, you believe that? This state has been so misrepresented for so long, and it is the denial of men like you who have kept us there. Your bias comes out loud and clear. We need some truth tellers in this state and it is NOT the republicans. When you finally wake up and see you are living in the 21st century and not 1950, it may make sense.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 8:52am

As a reminder, they also (illogically, in your opinion) sued PRIOR to the proposal passing, and lost.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 7:48am

Please explain to me how it will be determined which bin, D, R, or I, the commission members would be placed? Will people be asked how they voted on this proposal? Will they be asked to prove their ideology? Does anyone believe that the D SOS will try to fairly place members in the correct bin? I believe this is just an end run around the elected legislature that will end up with a commission comprised of 8 D’s, 3 R’s, and 2 I’s or something close to that. Anyone can lie about their ideology in a way that makes them the “perfect fit” to be on the commission.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 10:01am


Wed, 07/31/2019 - 11:03am

I'd imagine there's enough data, whether publicly available or attached to existing registration lists, that would allow anyone to figure out pretty well where any given voter falls, keeping in mind of course that candidates for the board can be rejected by either party. But the are details that contradict your persecution narrative, so I guess they can be rejected

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 11:34am

So you want them to violate the privacy of our ballots? Since I've voted in Democratic primaries before, sign me up for a D spot on that commission!

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 8:21am

I wonder if the GOP's nostalgic view of the good ol' days of Americana (back when it was Great, I mean) ever included playing fair. There's something to be said for playing fair and winning fair... or maybe that's only a progressive value.

Dave Frederick
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 8:24am

Of course, they don't want a fair election process

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 8:48am

Once again, the MI GOP is demonstrating it's disdain for democracy. They are truly the party of obstruction and don't give a damn about the majority of citizens in this state.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 8:48am

" (20) This section is self-executing. If a final court decision holds any part or parts of this section to be in conflict with the United States constitution or federal law, the section shall be implemented to the maximum extent that the United States constitution and federal law permit. Any provision held invalid is severable from the remaining portions of this section."

The suit asks for revocation of the entire amendment, not just the exclusions in the commission selection process. Because of the way the amendment is written, the new commission happens even if the exclusions are excluded.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 8:51am

Because OF COURSE they are! When you can no longer rig elections in your favor, you lash out. As a reminder to the Michigan GOP, this ballot proposal passed with 61% of the vote, which is what we would refer to as an 'overwhelming majority'.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 11:35am

Yes, the Republican Party in Michigan and across the country really don't believe in or support democracy. They want a dictatorship where there are no voters, just the wealthy and large corporations who tell them what to do. We're just the 'little people' who don't matter and don't count.

Thomas Doyle
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 9:01am

The plaintiffs had their opportunity at the ballot box.
I am fed up with living in an autocracy! The citizens of the state of Michigan voted for this amendment not political contributors outside of our state.
For 8 years we had legislative actions shoved down our throats the people of Michigan must continue to take back our state from those on the outside.

Thomas Doyle
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 9:01am

The plaintiffs had their opportunity at the ballot box.
I am fed up with living in an autocracy! The citizens of the state of Michigan voted for this amendment not political contributors outside of our state.
For 8 years we had legislative actions shoved down our throats the people of Michigan must continue to take back our state from those on the outside.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 10:14am


Wed, 07/31/2019 - 9:12am

Wow. It is unbelievable how low today's Republicans will stoop. The ideas behind that commission are just about as fair as they can realistically get and anyone who supports a fair, democratic process should be behind it. It seems that Republican's know that they've been winning due to an unfair advantage (extreme gerrymandering) and they want to keep that advantage - no matter how corrupt and unfair it is.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 2:20pm

The Voter's Not Politicians was a group of Democrats that formed after the 2016 loss of Hillary Clinton. I know the individuals who were in charge personally and they are hard core Democrats not just fed up citizens.

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 11:34am

What is your personal connection to the 61% of Michigan voters who passed proposal 2? Were every single one of them hardcore democracts as well?

Fri, 08/02/2019 - 12:36pm

Sorry, I am an independent and worked hard to help this amendment to pass. People from all backgrounds participated and didn't really worry about party affiliation. Everyone who worked on this amendment knows that a heavy gerrymandered district does not provide any of us with adequate representation. We all simply want people who actually care about keeping their jobs to represent us, no matter their party.

Prof Ken Kolk
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 9:15am

The Republicans have controlled Michigan for the last 20 years because they have always drawn the state electoral maps. Since I live in Ottawa County and am a liberal my vote only ever counts in state wide elections. This has been the only way this corporatist crowd has been able stay in power. I want the state to make my vote count for a change. The goal should be to draw as many competitive districts as possible, not as few as possible.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 9:18am

The idea that any commission (in this case, in aggregate) could be non-partisan is ludicrous. Some faction will gain advantage. A better approach is a mechanical process for apportionment that ensures that district composition is random. Having any sort of offset or other consideration of composition is inherently partisan.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 11:05am

A better solution is to abolish single-representative districts and move to a proportional system

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 2:01pm

I totally agree. I would suggest eliminating the Michigan house and for each senatorial district every person that gets over 15% of the vote gets elected. And the number that voted for them is how much power they would have in Lansing. It would be true representative government and gerrymandering would be impossible.

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 3:46pm

Awesome, ethical and smart idea.....of course it will never happen... Too many people are getting corporate checks to care about democracy or representative government, unfortunately.

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 12:09pm

I'd go one better and eliminate the middleman, get rid of all political offices and just govern by polls!

Mon, 08/05/2019 - 10:09am

Do you ever plan to contribute something meaningful to the conversation here?

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 10:02am

Gerrymandering invalidates people’s votes, pure and simple. Why does Michigan have two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor —- and yet the state legislature is overwhelmingly Republican? (Yes, we went for DJT in the last election but by the tiniest margin ever.) Not surprisingly, the legislature has made decision after decision that runs counter to public opinion, stuff like Right To Work (for less), Fireworks for Everyone at Any Time, Tax Dollar$ for Parochial schools, etc., not to mention their ‘Adopt and Amend’ end run around successful ballot initiatives that they didn’t like. Gerrymandering deliberately ignores the will of the people. No wonder voters are angry.

Bruce Heckman
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 10:14am

This lawsuit is just a disgusting stalling tactic.

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 10:15am

What the author of this article failed to mention is that the 'Fair Lines America Foundation' is anything but fair as they have ties to the National Republican Redistricting Trust. Another example of the Republican Party's hiding behind innocuous names as they work to further pervert our society.

Kathi Geukes
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 10:57am

It's time for Republicans in this state to realize that we won't be stuck in the 1950's.....being afraid of new ideas from different people, other than the ones who agree with everything you say, is the certain way of losing not only your majority.....but every election from now to eternity....the state is changing...change with it or get left behind!!!!!

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 11:11am

In a blatant attempt to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office has threaten to charge excessive processing fees. Fees that would cause this FOIA request to cost more than 2000% higher than normal. The Michigan Redistricting Committee will be charged with an incredibly important task, and the people of Michigan have a right to know how that committee is being formed.

Christine Temple
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 11:39am

Republican'ts are always working to subvert the will of the people. We voted on this. It won 65% of the vote. Remember when we voted against Emergency Managers? And we got Flint. I am so tired of Republican'ts. They can't win without cheating.

Joan M McComber
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 12:53pm

Once again Republicans show their true colors with this lawsuit. They clearly do not want to listen to the voters in their quest for policymaking. But, more importantly, they ignore the clearly stated facts of this bill. While it does restrict certain people from being placed on the panel, it is not a permanent exclusion. What it does do is ensure the panel is seated with persons with no obvious bias. What could be more fair than a panel that seats 4 each Democrats and Republicans, and 5 Independents? What is most ludicrous, in my opinion, is that the party that works harder than any other to exclude the voices of the general public, now seeks to silence the entire populace while they continue to gerrymander districts in their favor. I sincerely hope this lawsuit is thrown immediately out as having no merit.

Paul Jordan
Wed, 07/31/2019 - 2:08pm

Oh, how they do squeal when stuck!
I would like to point out that it is not Democratic political operatives who are running off to the federal courts to cry that those bad people aren't letting them play. It is the Republicans, who have engaged in every conceivable way to skew political processes to gain and preserve their own power, and democracy (and the voting rights of others) be damned. Now, when an overwhelming proportion of Michigan's voters wrested control of redistricting away from BOTH major parties, Republicans want to claim that THEIR rights (to control the electoral process?) are being violated!
They better hope that there is no hell because if there is, there's a warm spot waiting for them.

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 3:39pm

And this is the reason why not to vote for Republicans. Isn't it sad that in our supposed "free" country, your vote is "purposefully" either watered down to insignificance or inflated for political benefit, depending on your race and where you live? Is this free? I'm not a fan of either Party, I find them both corrupt and morally reprehensible, but one party had really sank below contempt when it comes to hurting this country's citizens....and I wish people would put aside the partnership and put the people first for a change, no matter your party affiliation.

Thu, 08/01/2019 - 3:43pm

Or they could just get rid of redistricting all together and draw equidistant grid lines over the state and call it "done"... Of course we don't have the common sense for easy solutions to thee problems.

Fri, 08/02/2019 - 7:52am

The problem there being that the population isn't equally distributed. The city of Detroit has twice as many people as the entire U.P.

Fri, 08/02/2019 - 9:02am

Michigan has become the standard for Republican politics and you see the exact same scenario now playing out at the national level. Think about it. A "business man" who is supposed to know how to run a business elected to the highest office (Snyder/Trump) by nefarious means (gerrymandering/russian interferance). Seats all his incompetent "buddies" to do his bidding (Snyder/Trump) and when things go wrong the blame begins to fly (MDEQ/Obama, Clinton etc, etc, etc). When he doesn't get his way the lawsuits begin to fly. (Snyder/Trump).

If we don't learn from history we will repeat it. I don't know about other Michiganders, but I am tired of this repeated cycle of behavior and living in this reality show they have created. Those republicans who read Bridge take heed this will come back to haunt you. It always does.

Sun, 08/04/2019 - 10:44am

If they overturn this "vote of the majority of the people of the State of Michigan", just like the minimum wage one and the legalization of Marijuana one, you will be responsible for usurping our democracy. Sick of it!