Talk about performance anxiety.
For the first time since 2011, Michigan legislators must redraw the state’s voting district lines. But unlike eight years ago when Republicans were allowed to draw the lines in relative secrecy, this time they’ve got far tougher critics to impress — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and a trio of federal judges — and just over three months to do it.
The mandate came Thursday afternoon when the judges ruled unanimously that GOP insiders illegally gerrymandered dozens of state and congressional districts throughout Michigan. Under the lawsuit ruling, those 34 districts must hold special elections in 2020 (potentially cutting short some state senators’ final four-year term) with new lines drawn and signed into law by Aug. 1.
Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court could intercede with a decision of its own on state redistricting standards that could render the Michigan ruling moot. The high court is expected to deliver its decision, stemming from cases in two other states, in June.
Related Michigan gerrymandering stories:
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- Expert testifies gerrymandering in Michigan is worse than almost anywhere
- Emails: Michigan Republicans brag that redistricting ‘protects incumbents’
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But absent an adverse ruling from Washington, election experts say Republican lawmakers, who have long controlled Lansing, now face intense scrutiny to devise maps that look radically different if they are going to pass legal muster.
“What we saw in the creation of the maps that were just struck down ... was a redistricting process that was maximized entirely to push the advantage of one party that controlled the whole process,” said Thomas Wolf, a constitutional lawyer specializing in redistricting at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan legal center based at New York University.
As Thursday’s 146-page ruling detailed, Republicans drew the 2011 lines to maximize election of their own candidates through a secret process led by political consultants armed with highly specific voting data. Republicans passed the maps through legislative committees and each chamber along partisan lines, with little public transparency. The maps were then approved by a Republican governor, Rick Snyder, leaving Democrats largely out of the process.
“It’s not all in one party’s hands, that’s what’s different now,” said Chris Thomas, the former Michigan Elections Director. There are closer margins between Republicans and Democrats in the legislature and a Democrat in the governor’s office. “So presumably there would be give and take” before the Aug. 1 deadline, he said.
Not only must Michigan lawmakers come up with maps Whitmer will approve, they must share a bevy of information with the court that opens a window into their decision-making process. That includes the names of everyone lawmakers’ “formally or informally” consult over the next three months, and a detailed explanation for how the maps they devise will cure the gerrymandering found in the current maps.
Senate Republicans plan to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court and seek a delay in implementing the ruling, said Amber McCann, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey. In the meantime, the Senate will “begin our work to comply with the order.” She said she could not provide Bridge more insight on what that work might look like.
“The court has issued a very comprehensive order,” McCann said. “The details of that are being reviewed by legal staff to see what the next steps would be for the Senate.”
Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield declined comment Friday. Tiffany Brown, spokesperson for Whitmer, said via email, “the governor looks forward to playing her part to ensure every vote counts in Michigan.”
The Supreme Court could approve Republicans’ request for a stay of the Michigan ruling and eventually decide the fate of the two other partisan gerrymandering cases (from North Carolina and Maryland) in a way that indicates the court doesn’t need to play a role in curbing the practice. If that happens, Michigan Republicans may dodge a bullet and avoid the 2020 Senate elections ordered by the judges.
But given the short time frame and uncertainty over how the Supreme Court may rule, the map-drawing process will probably have to begin now, said John Chamberlin, a political science professor at the University of Michigan.
Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the group that proposed the state’s new redistricting commission that voters approved in November and is still being created, said her organization would be happy to be a resource to legislators as they prepare to draw new lines.
“The redistricting reform amendment provides a roadmap for how to (draw lines fairly) by incorporating public feedback, respecting communities of interest across the state, and operating transparently,” Wang said via email.
Tony Zammit, spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party, said the party is currently looking to support the promised appeals and reviewing legal options, and will leave the mapmaking “up to the Legislature’s best judgment.”
“They know their districts better than anyone else,” Zammit said.
Rather than reaching out to advocacy groups or nonpartisan advisors, legislators are more likely to rely on the consultants that have long provided political insight, said Chamberlin, the U-M professor.
“I don’t know if either party would reach out to someone they thought was neutral,” Chamberlin said. “They will, I presume, go to the usual folks they go to on these questions but say, ‘Try to be reasonable this time, and don’t send us any emails about what’s going on.’” Private emails produced during the lawsuit and first reported by Bridge indicated Republicans intentionally drew lines to advantage their party.
Legislators could also consult the mathematicians and social scientists who provided expert testimony to the panel of judges in the federal case, Chamberlin said, such as University of Michigan political science professor Jowei Chen, who was called to testify by plaintiffs in the suit. Chen ran thousands of computer simulations to randomly draw Michigan political boundaries — all of which he determined were less gerrymandered than Michigan’s current maps.
If the Republican-led legislature and Whitmer can’t agree on a plan before the deadline, a “special master” would be chosen to draw the maps instead.
“I don’t think we want that,” said Rep. Christine Greig, the Democratic House Minority Leader, who said she will probably talk with Chatfield and Senate leadership next week about how to move forward and who to seek input from. Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich declined to comment.
Closer margins in the legislature and a Democratic governor means Democrats “will not be shut out of the process this time,” Greig said. “We will be a partner at the table to make sure we have these fair lines.”
More Michigan gerrymandering stories:
- These maps show how Michigan Republicans kept power despite blue wave
- Gerrymandering is dying in Michigan. Of old age. No joke.
- Gerrymandering 101: How voters favor Dems, but GOP keeps Michigan Legislature
- Gerrymandered districts help Republicans keep control of Michigan Legislature
- Maps show how gerrymandering benefitted Michigan Republicans