Michigan secretary of state wants to settle gerrymandering lawsuit

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Michigan would “save money” by settling lawsuit it stands to lose.


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
Feb. 1, 2019: Federal court scuttles Michigan gerrymandering deal, rejects trial delay
Jan. 25, 2019: Jocelyn Benson seeks to settle gerrymandering suit by redrawing House seats
Jan. 23, 2019: Gerrymandering settlement would give Michigan Dems hope, GOP despair​

Editor's note: This story was updated Friday to reflect new criticism from the Michigan Republican Party about the prospect of a settlement.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson announced Thursday she wants to settle a federal lawsuit that challenged the state’s legislative boundaries, a move that could force a redrawing of the state’s political map before the 2020 elections.

Benson, a Democrat, filed a brief in federal court agreeing to a delay in a trial set to begin in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Feb. 5. 

Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, filed the case on behalf of the League of Women Voters in December 2017, alleging new methods of analyzing the fairness of legislative maps proved Michigan’s districts are among the most skewed toward Republicans in the nation.

The defendant in the case had been former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican. With Benson’s election in November, the office switched parties for the first time since 1994.

“It is clear the court has found significant evidence of partisan gerrymandering, and the likely outcome would not be favorable to the state,” Benson said in a press release. “It is therefore my responsibility to ensure a fair and equitable resolution for the citizens of Michigan that would save taxpayer money and ensure fair representation.”

Any settlement could involve redrawing all 14 congressional districts and more than 30 state Senate districts, which the suit alleged were unconstitutional.

It's still unclear who would redraw the lines. The task could fall to the Michigan Legislature, which is still controlled by Republicans, but Brewer, Benson and a three-judge panel presiding over the case would have to agree to the new maps. In court papers filed Thursday, Brewer wrote that both sides are "committed to reach a compromise." It's unclear what that could entail.

That prompted Republicans on Friday to accuse Benson of "pursuing a secret consent decree" to "draw new district lines designed to benefit Democratic candidates."

From the outside looking in, it appears the move simply paves the way for Benson, her own political party, and a group with which she has longstanding ties, to manipulate the state legislative and federal congressional districts for the 2020 election. There cannot be a fair and non-partisan settlement result from a Democrat-only closed-door process,” said Michael Pattwell, general counsel of the Michigan Republican Party.


And because boundaries will be automatically redrawn in 2021, any settlement will only affect the the 2020 election.

In November, voters backed a proposal to turn the 2021 effort over to a citizens redistricting commission. A grassroots group, Voters Not Politicians got the issue on the ballot and then successfully advocated for the change, saying the existing boundaries were unfair.

Republicans have held both chambers of the Legislature for most of the last 20 years, despite rarely getting 50 percent of all votes. And they had a 9-5 edge in the Congressional delegation for several cycles until Democrats gained two seats in November, splitting the delegation 7-7.

During her campaign for secretary of state, Benson advocated for the anti-gerrymandering proposal and said she was best qualified to work with the new commission, which will be comprised of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents.

“As a longtime advocate of citizen involvement in redistricting as a solution to end gerrymandering, I look forward to implementing an (Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission) in a way that is transparent, nonpartisan and effectively engages citizens across the state in the important task of drawing legislative districts that comply with state and federal law.” Benson said.

Before Benson’s election, the secretary of state’s office had defended the existing boundaries, drawn in 2011 and supported by the Republican-dominated legislature.

As the case has moved through the court docket, it has unearthed troves of emails showing Republicans worked with party consultants to draw districts that favored incumbent Republicans at the expense of Democrats.

In some emails, Republicans discussed drawing districts to “give the finger” to former Democratic Rep. Sander Levin and “cram ALL the Dem garbage” in four districts so that Republicans could control more districts statewide.

Brewer declined comment but filed a motion in federal court Thursday noting “there is a high likelihood that the Secretary of State and Plaintiffs will soon reach a settlement.”

The motions came a few days after an intervening defendant, House Speaker Lee Chatfield, filed an emergency request for a delay in the trial, saying the issues could be moot because the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to handle two separate gerrymandering districts that favor Democrats in Maryland and Republicans in North Carolina.

The high court is weighing whether gerrymandering for politically partisan purposes violates the law. A decision on those cases is due by June, a few months after the Michigan case would be decided if it still proceeds to trial.

Chatfield and other Michigan Republicans joined the Michigan case in late December, citing what they described as uncertainty over whether Benson would defend the case. 

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Kevin Grand
Fri, 01/18/2019 - 7:35am

“As a longtime advocate of citizen involvement in redistricting as a solution to end gerrymandering, I look forward to implementing an (Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission) in a way that is transparent, nonpartisan and effectively engages citizens across the state in the important task of drawing legislative districts that comply with state and federal law.” Benson said.

Hey, that sounds great on paper!

So, did SoS Benson ever elaborate on exactly how she intends to determine if someone is actually "non-partisan"?

On what her office would do when someone is appointed to that board and their political leanings are known?

And most importantly, what will happen to the political district boundaries of those tainted districts (i.e how quickly would they be re-drawn and what would happen to the results of any affected elections and those office holders)?

Strangely, no one has adequately answered any of those questions as of yet.

Rick S
Fri, 01/18/2019 - 8:54am

For better or worse, not many folks are "non-partisan" and lacking in "political leanings". We simply need to be fair and willing to compromise. Such behavior is unfortunately lacking at many levels these days.

Fri, 01/18/2019 - 3:00pm

Hello again Kevin,

I see you're still preoccupied with this idea that the "independents" on the commission might be partisans in disguise. Do a little thought experiment with me. Let's imagine for a moment the "worst case scenario". Not only are the "independents" actually members of the same major party, but somehow, through some deft chicanery, EVERY member of the commission is actually a member of the same party. Not only that, but they're paid operatives of that party. The commission is completely compromised with one party having complete control. It's far-fetched, but I think we can agree this is the worst conceivable outcome for the commission.

Here's the thing: That's EXACTLY the situation we have right now! Districts are drawn by paid party operatives for political gain. The numbers show this. The emails show this. It is fact.

The big difference with the commission is transparency. Currently, these paid political operatives draw their maps in secret, beholden to no one but their party bosses. The commission, on the other hand, has to follow strict rules around keeping the process open and accountable to the public. In other words, the WORST POSSIBLE CASE SCENARIO for the commission is better than the status quo.

This is the real improvement: transparency and accountability. The partisan makeup of the commission is just a logical answer to the question, "If the most biased group of people possible no longer handles redistricting, who will?" Absent some sort of mind-reading device to screen commissioners for political bias, the 4/4/5 split of randomly selected voters is the compromise that was agreed to.

I don't share your concerns about the commission being stacked with members from one party. But if I did, I would take comfort knowing that even this potentially flawed process is a huge improvement on what we have now.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 01/18/2019 - 7:19pm

You and I obviously have a very different definition of "transparency and accountability", Josh.

VNP snookered everyone into believing that was part of their own proposal.

Claiming that when one side doing it is bad, but not having the integrity to address when (not if) it comes up again, you're undermining your original argument.

Just saying.

And it just goes without saying that VNP WAS well aware of that scenario, which is why they NEVER wanted to address it in the first place.

Fri, 01/18/2019 - 9:31am

I truly believe it the lines should be geographically drawn with equal portion to each district. Then let the votes fall where they may Trying to constantly re-draw them for population counts or political views is time consuming and costly. Just draw the lines like they do for county borders and be done with it, once and for all.

Fri, 01/18/2019 - 3:07pm

The districts are required by federal law to have equal populations to ensure equal representation. See http://www.publicmapping.org/what-is-redistricting/redistricting-criteri... for fairly concise explanation. If Congresscritter Smith represents 5 constituents and Congresscritter Jones represents 1000 constituents, this is unequal representation and illegal under federal law.

Sun, 01/20/2019 - 9:38am

The problem comes from how much variance is allowable in districts. With the requirement that they must be exact, you have ton of room for shenanigans. Seasister isn't off the track in avoiding splitting up political units even if county by county wouldn't fly.

Fri, 01/18/2019 - 2:24pm

"There cannot be a fair and non-partisan settlement result from a Democrat-only closed-door process,” said Michael Pattwell, general counsel of the Michigan Republican Party.

This is his argument for retaining the maps that were the result of a Republican-only closed-door process.

David Frye
Fri, 01/18/2019 - 3:15pm

Well, I can certainly see why the Republicans would squeal about efforts to end their gerrymandered maps. In November they got less than 48% of the vote but they walked away with 61% of the seats in the state Senate.

James Kerby
Fri, 01/18/2019 - 4:15pm

As a proud independent voter who campaigned vigorously for the passage of the amendment that effectively eliminates gerrymandering in Michigan, it seems that 61+% of the electorate understands and Republican politicians don't get why the amendment passed in November, 2018. The complaints that the Democrats will try to rig things via this lawsuit seems rather ironic at this point . I would think they should be pleased that the Democrats will be unable to gerrymander in view of the demographic trends in Michigan and not allow them to be sent to political purgatory in the coming years. Thank you, you're welcome.

Mon, 01/21/2019 - 7:21pm

What no one seems to have paid attention to is that this effort to settle the existing lawsuit before 2020 is intended to short circuit the possibility that the Supreme Court finds in the upcoming unambiguously that gerrymandering using whatever redistricting process is required by a state's constitution or laws is permissible, maybe even required, by the US Constitution. The Supreme Court will hear cases starting in March from Maryland and North Carolina which feature districts drawn to benefit either Democrats (in Maryland) or Republicans (in South Carolina). Time enough to settle this particular case after the Supreme Court has another chance to rule on the permissible limits of considering politics when drawing the boundaries of legislative districts. Because a premature settlement that AG Nessel will approve might lead to e renewed case, if SCOTUS decides as expected that any process that followed both state rules and the Voting Rights Act yeldslegitimate boundaries.