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Voters Not Politicians’ bid to intervene in suit prompts fairness questions

Voters Not Politicians did not try to intervene in two lawsuits that challenge new legislative districts because neither challenged a constitutional amendment passed by voters establishing a 13-member redistricting panel, said its director, Nancy Wang.

LANSING — The group behind the creation of Michigan’s redistricting commission is fighting a GOP-led lawsuit that seeks to redraw the newly-adopted congressional map.

Voters Not Politicians and the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington D.C., nonprofit, on Monday, asked a federal court to allow them to intervene as defendants in the lawsuit brought by a group of seven Republicans against Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission over the congressional lines.

“Plaintiffs’ interpretation of the amendment is at odds with the text itself,” Nancy Wang, the executive director of Voters Not Politicians, told Bridge Michigan Tuesday. 

Related: 

In their lawsuit, the Republicans claim the congressional map adopted violates the U.S. and Michigan Constitutions because the redistricting commission failed to draw districts with equal populations. 

The plaintiffs— which include state representative and candidate for Secretary of State Beau LaFave, and former state Rep. Joseph Graves, R-Linden— claim the map “fragments counties, townships, and municipalities” without a necessary reason. The suit seeks an order to redraw the maps, which are expected to take effect in March. 

LaFave and plaintiffs' attorneys did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Voters Not Politicians was founded after the 2016 election and led to a grassroots effort to change how political districts are drawn. In Michigan, like many other states, the party in power in the Legislature drew maps every 10 years after the decennial census. That led to districts that a panel of judges called a “gerrymander of historical proportions” that favored Republicans.

The Voters Not Politicians group organized a movement that led voters in 2018 to change the constitution to create the independent redistricting commission. 

The 13-member drew political boundaries using a set of criteria, including placing special emphasis on preserving so-called “communities of interest,” groups that are bound by common characteristics. 

The Republican-led lawsuit claims that townships, counties and cities are “Michigan’s true communities of interest.”

Wang said the Republicans in the lawsuit are “manufacturing a definition of ‘communities of interest’ that is totally in conflict with those stated in the constitution and used by the commission.”

“We will protect the amendment from interference regardless of who seeks to undermine it.”

Voters Not Politicians touts itself on its website as a “nonpartisan advocacy organization” dedicated to strengthening democracy through ethics and campaign finance reform.

But it has not intervened in two other lawsuits that have challenged the commission’s new maps. One from Detroit Democrats claimed the reduction in majority-minority districts will dilute the power of African-American voters, while other, from the  League of Women Voters and other groups, alleges the commission’s state House maps are biased toward Republicans.

The commission’s analysis shows Republicans would be favored in 53 of 110 districts even if they received 48 percent of the total votes in all statewide House races.

However, a Bridge Michigan analysis based on more narrow election results, shows the map leans slightly Republican, 56-54.

“It is pretty bizarre (Voters Not Politicians) would just pick the one because … the assertions of the Republican lawsuit aren't actually all that different from other lawsuits that have been filed,” Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist and CEO of Grassroots Midwest, told Bridge Michigan.

Wang told Bridge the group didn’t intervene in those suits because they “are not seeking to undermine the will of the people by asking the court to rewrite the constitution.”

Tony Daunt, the executive director of the conservative redistricting advocacy group FAIR Maps Michigan, said Voters Not Politicians is being inconsistent in its application of the law.

In 2020, Daunt unsuccessfully sued the state to overturn the ballot measure that created the commission. In that instance, Voters Not Politicians and the Campaign Legal Center also intervened as defendants.

“They're being awfully selective with what instances they're seeking to defend what they've provided, or what they've created,” Daunt said.

Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a Democratic former state lawmaker and a candidate in the new 13th Congressional District, told Bridge Michigan Tuesday Voters Not Politicians should be focused on fighting the negative impacts the districts will have on Black voters in the state.

Gay-Dagnogo was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by the Detroit Caucus of the Michigan Legislature and other Black leaders against the redistricting commission over the congressional and state legislative maps.

That lawsuit claimed the new districts violate the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 federal law, and dilute the voting power of Black voters. The Michigan Supreme Court last week dismissed the lawsuit in a 4-3 vote. 

“Where was Voters Not Politicians in talking with the Black municipalities?” Gay-Dagnogo asked in an interview with Bridge, adding the group is putting politics over people.

“So, it’s extremely offensive, disrespectful and they don't value our vote but for anything but obtaining a Democratic majority that doesn't look like us.”

During the Michigan Supreme Court hearing of the lawsuit from Detroit lawmakers, attorneys for the plaintiffs and the redistricting commission discussed whether a lack of resources played a role in the decision of the plaintiffs to not present an independent partisan fairness analysis of the maps, nor an alternative map.

Gay-Dagnogo said Voters Not Politicians could have helped with their efforts of challenging the maps on behalf of Black voters.

“They have not lifted their voice one time to be supportive or empathetic to the issues that have been raised by Black pastors, by Black leaders, by citizens,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “So … what voters are you talking about? Certainly not Black voters.”

Wang, with Voters Not Politicians, said the group respects “the right of voters to challenge the maps using the legal process laid out in the constitution. We expect any challenge, if successful, to return the maps to the commission with instructions.”

The complaints follow other accusations from Daunt and others that Voters Not Politicians is aligned with Democrats.

In 2017, The Detroit News reported that “seven of 10 board members of the Voters Not Politicians petition committee have given at least a combined $5,649 to Democratic candidates and causes since 2005.” None gave to Republican candidates or causes.

Katie Fahey, the former president of the Voter Not Politicians ballot committee, was also quoted in a national news outlet in 2016 saying she had attended what she thought was going to be an election night victory party for failed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. Fahey has described herself as an independent. 

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