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Redistricting guru: Michigan’s maps are legal, even if process was political

Oct. 21, 2019: U.S. high court kills Michigan gerrymandering case ordering new districts
April 25, 2019: Michigan’s political districts illegally gerrymandered, court rules

DETROIT – Michigan’s controversial political districts were drawn in secret by Republicans and written in part to help incumbents – and there’s nothing wrong with that, one of their chief architects testified Thursday.

The final witness in a three-day federal trial to determine if Michigan’s political districts are constitutional, GOP consultant Jeff Timmer said he drew the maps in 2011 to meet exacting legal standards.

Did politics come into play? Of course, Timmer said.

“The legislative process is inherently political,” said Timmer, a managing director for the Sterling Corp., a Lansing firm that works with Republicans.

“It’s not uncommon at all for lawmakers –  Democrats and Republicans – to meet alone to discuss legislation, including redistricting.”

The lawsuit, brought by the League of Women Voters of Michigan and Democrats including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, could decide whether dozens of Michigan legislative and congressional districts are redrawn for the 2020 election. (An independent citizens commission will take over the duties of drawing state and congressional political maps in Michigan after 2020.)

Plaintiffs’ attorneys argue at least 34 Michigan districts illegally dilute voters’ rights by “packing” Democrats into districts they can’t lose, while spreading out or “cracking” remaining Democrats into safe GOP seats, helping to ensure Republican majorities in Lansing.

Republicans say the maps abide by Michigan law and claims of illegal gerrymandering were put to rest in November, when Democrats swept the state and picked up two congressional seats despite the contested maps.

Hundreds of damaging emails have been unearthed in the litigation involving Republican operatives, including Timmer, that indicate districts were designed to help maintain GOP majorities.

Timmer, the GOP’s only witness, downplayed those emails on Thursday, saying he was besieged with requests to tweak legislative districts.

“I received a lot of unsolicited comments and input from people on how districts should look,” Timmer said. “People who were peripherally involved seemed to provide that input most often.”

In one email to Timmer, Jack Daly, then-chief of staff to now-former GOP Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, sought changes to southeast Michigan districts to weaken Democratic influence.

“In a glorious way that makes it easier to cram ALL of the Dem garbage in Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland and Macomb counties into only four districts. Is there anyone on our side who doesn’t recognize that dynamic?” Daly wrote to Timmer in May 2011.

Daly wrote emails practically daily, Timmer said.

“He was a very eager participant in the process and had a lot of ideas, but he was largely ignored by everyone in the process,” Timmer said.

Likewise, Timmer acknowledged he incorporated voter history into proposed congressional districts, flew to Washington D.C. to receive district “wish lists” from Michigan’s Republican congressional delegation (but not Democrats) and was hired by a now-former Michigan Chamber of Commerce executive, Robert LaBrant, who bragged the maps would help the GOP maintain a 9-5 edge in Congress for years.

Even so, Timmer insisted the process was bipartisan.

He testified that a handful of Democrats –  including Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor – voted for the plan after working with Republicans to improve their own districts.

Timmer said he followed Michigan’s Apol standards, laws that have guided redistricting since the 1980s and require districts to be of similar size, keep counties intact and minimize breaks along municipal borders.

“Partisan considerations,” such as preserving incumbency, were taken into consideration but didn’t take precedence, Timmer said.

Timmer said his goal was to create maps that would pass the Legislature. During redistricting processes after the 1980 and 1990 Censuses, political disagreements and lawsuits forced judges to approve the districts.

“The Legislature had a responsibility to come to an agreement on district lines without involving the courts,” Timmer said. “The desire … was to adhere to [legal] standards and get enough votes to ensure the [maps] pass.”

Ultimately, there was little need to worry. In Michigan, the political party in power in Lansing controlled state and congressional mapmaking following each decennial census.

In 2011, Republicans had wide majorities in both chambers, the executive office (Rick Snyder) and majority in the Supreme Court.

The redistricting plan passed 29-8 in the state Senate and 65-42 in the House, with support from fewer than 10 Democrats.

The process will change starting in the 2022 election, after Michigan voters in November approved a measure that creates the independent citizens commission to draw legislative maps.

That means any new districts ordered by federal judges in the current suit would last only for the 2020 election.

A three-judge panel presiding over the case likely will rule after Feb. 22, the deadline for final written arguments.

Two judges in the case were appointed by President Bill Clinton: Denise Page-Hood and Eric Clay, while the third, Gordon Quist, was appointed by President George H. W. Bush.

The League of Women Voters brought nine witnesses as plaintiffs, most of whom are Democratic voters who testified they live in districts are that so skewed they feel their vote is wasted and don’t receive fair representation.

The trial was limited because most of the case relies on evidence that has already been submitted to the court and is familiar to judges. As a result, unlike a typical trial, the trial did not include closing arguments Thursday.

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