DETROIT – A three-judge federal panel on Thursday ruled that Michigan Republicans redistricting in 2011 was so partisan that it constituted an illegal gerrymander, and has ordered special elections in nearly three dozen districts in 2020.
“Today, this Court joins the growing chorus of federal courts that have, in recent years, held that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional,” according to a ruling written by U.S. District Judge Eric Clay, an appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton.
The court found that Republicans' methods for redrawing Michigan’s political districts violated Democratic voters' First and 14th "Amendment rights because it deliberately dilutes the power of their votes by placing them in districts that were intentionally drawn to ensure a particular partisan outcome in each district.”
Related: Read the court order
The lawsuit, brought by The League of Women Voters and several Democratic voters in Michigan, targeted 34 state House, Senate and U.S. congressional districts that it claimed were drawn to favor Republicans and minimize the election of Democrats.
The court found that all of those districts in Michigan were illegally gerrymandered and ordered Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to hold special elections in 2020 with redrawn districts.
The Michigan Legislature has until Aug. 1 to redraw the districts, but a special master could be appointed to oversee the process if lawmakers fail to act, the judges ruled.
Related Michigan gerrymandering stories:
Affected are at least nine congressional districts, 10 state Senate districts and 15 House seats, but several other adjacent ones could also have to be redrawn because of a ripple effect caused by redrawing lines.
Senate Majortity Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, indicated Republicans will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is weighing separate gerrymandering cases in North Carolina and Maryland. A decision on those cases is likely in June and could preempt the Michigan ruling.
"We'll know in June what's really going on," Sen. Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township, told Bridge on Thursday.
His district is among those targeted in the suit and would have to be redrawn if the ruling stands. Like other senators, he was elected to a four-year term in November. The ruling could theoretically cut those terms in half. The duration of those terms -- and whether those half terms would count toward term limits -- is one of the big uncertainties following the bombshell ruling.
"Right now, it’s a lot of he said-she said," Lucido said. "But at the end of the day, when the Democrats were in charge, they drew the lines. We didn’t file lawsuits. But now that Republicans are in charge, everything is unfair."
The judges, however, specifically rejected such a characterization, saying their ruling did "not rely on isolated off-hand comments" but was based instead on extensive evidence from statistical experts, testimony from legislative mapdrawers, Republican legislators and staffers, political operatives and a "wide-range of documentary evidence," most notably a cache of emails (often written on private email accounts) among Republican lawmakers and insiders showing an undisguised effort to favor the GOP incumbents and harm Democrats in drawing district lines in 2011 "with discriminatory intent."
The judges ordered special elections for the Senate to coincide with reguarly scheduled elections, so they "would not impose a heavy burden on Michigan’s normal electoral process."
"While senators may be disappointed that their four-year terms will be reduced to two years, the sentiment of the legislators elected under an unconstitutional apportionment plan does not outweigh the constitutional rights of millions of Michiganders to elect their senators under constitutional maps," the ruling read.
State Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox said the party “will support an appeal to uphold the will of Michigan voters.”
The ruling follows a trial in U.S. District Court in Detroit in February and the discovery of reams of emails from 2011 showing that Republicans drew districts in secret and bragged about crafting them to strengthen their advantage.
The districts have consistently allowed Republicans to maintain strong majorities in Lansing, even though they typically receive roughly 50 percent or less of total votes across the state.
During the trial, George Washington University political scientist Christopher Warshaw testified the Michigan Senate maps “have more pro-Republican bias than 99.7 percent of all state Legislature maps across the country in the last 45 years.”
The judges agreed, writing the 2011 maps are a “political gerrymander of historical proportions."
"They had a smoking gun [with the emails]," Lupher told Bridge.
"It wasn’t whether the districts in Michigan were gerrymandered, but whether it was a judicable case."
Michigan's congressional delegation is split 7-7 following the 2018 election, while Republicans have a 22-16 majority in the Senate and 58-52 majority in the House.
Special elections would appear to benefit Democrats, who often receive as many or more votes as Republicans in statewide contests. But the 2020 elections would coincide with a presidential election, and Lupher said he's unsure if Democrats could gain another seat in Congress even with new maps.
Matt Grossman, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. said there are no guarantees for Democrats.
The Thursday ruling is far more favorable to Democrats than a settlement earlier this year by new Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and the League of Women Voters, which would have redrawn only 11 House districts.
The court rejected that settlement, however, ruling that Benson didn’t have the power to craft such a deal.
She inherited the case from her Republican predecessor at the Secretary of State, Ruth Johnson, who is now a state senator representing northern Oakland County and whose district will have to be redrawn.
Benson issued a statement Thursday saying, “I’m committed to working with the Legislature, citizens and the court to ensure the new districts comply with our U.S. Constitution.”
Reactions along party lines
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, issued a statement saying "we expect there to be a lot of legal process ahead of us."
House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, said “Michiganders have known for years that our current legislative districts silenced their voices at the ballot box."
"The court’s opinion is damning," she said.
The League of Women Voters issued a brief statement saying it was pleased by the ruling and looking forward to "fair districts."
Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians that spearheaded a referendum for citizen-drawn districts, issued a statement saying she agrees "that existing maps were drawn with political interests in mind, rather than accurately representing Michigan voters."
"We hope the legislature will draw this set of interim maps to represent voters, not politicians, just like 61% of Michigan voters supported in the last election," she said.
Katie Fahey, whose Facebook post sparked the Voters Not Politicians movement, told Bridge on Thursday that the ruling shows "that people aren't meant to be political pawns."
"We showed now on the ground and in the courts in Michigan that we can do something to address these systemic issues that keep us from having more representation," said Fahey, who is now executive director of The People, a national organization that seeks to organize local advocacy groups in states to push public policy that improves democracy.
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
- How a shadow Republican group gerrymandered Michigan – sparking a backlash
- These Republican insiders split $1 million to design and defend Michigan 2011 maps
- Maps show how gerrymandering benefitted Michigan Republicans
- Emails suggest Republicans gerrymandered Michigan to weaken ‘Dem garbage’