The final arguments are in. Now, it’s up to three federal judges to decide whether Michigan’s political districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered and new lines should be drawn for the 2020 election.
Lawyers in the bitterly contested case over Michigan’s 2011 redistricting process late Friday submitted more than 650 pages total of “findings of fact” and “conclusions of law,” rehashing arguments and evidence.
Instead, the lawsuit, brought by the League of Women Voters of Michigan and several Democrats, likely will hinge on the legal question of whether voters’ rights are infringed when they live in districts so tilted toward one party (Republicans in Michigan’s case) that the outcome of many state elections is preordained.
Here’s what to know about the arguments presented Friday and what comes next:
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Arguments from Democrats
The League of Women Voters contends 34 total congressional, state House and Senate seats are so skewed toward Republicans that they illegally dilute voters’ rights.
How so? By “packing” Democrats into districts they can’t lose, while spreading out or “cracking” remaining Democrats into safe GOP seats, helping ensure Republican majorities in Lansing.
Districts are redrawn every 10 years after the Census, and led by the party in control in Lansing, which has been Republicans in 2001 and 2011. The process will change in 2021, when a newly formed nonpartisan panel is set to drawn the districts, so any changes from the lawsuit would last only one election.
The League, represented by attorney and former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, contends Republicans had a leg up in 2011 because of existing maps, and then doubled down with a secret, privately financed effort to draw districts even more favorable to Republicans.
The case, filed in December 2017, has uncovered dozens of emails from Republican strategists bragging that new districts would help the GOP maintain a 9-5 congressional delegation for years. The emails also show aides to Michigan Republican members of Congress repeatedly requested changes to lines to protect incumbents.
“It’s hard to envision a Dem winning this seat even in a year like 2008,” a GOP mapmaker, Jeff Timmer, wrote in an email to the chief of staff for former Rep. Thaddeus McCotter.
The League pointed to election results showing that, since 2011, Republicans consistently receive roughly half of all votes for state Senate and House seats, but still control both chambers by overwhelming margins.
Testimony also claimed that Michigan districts are among the most heavily biased toward Republicans nationwide in the last 45 years.
“The Democratic Party has had difficulty recruiting candidates to run for office, raising money, and energizing volunteers because, based on historical election results, voters and donors believe that the Democratic candidate is very unlikely to win,” attorneys for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, wrote in documents filed Friday.
Arguments from Republicans
Attorneys for Republicans contend the League of Women Voters is making much ado about unsolicited emails from minor players in the redistricting effort, and want the case dismissed.
They contend there’s nothing illegal about consulting incumbents about maps, districts were drawn to meet Michigan’s exacting legal standards and the plaintiffs waited nearly seven years before filing suit.
“While Plaintiffs attempt to paint a picture of pure political gerrymandering, such characterizations fail in the face of the facts here,” attorneys for Republican members of the Michigan Senate wrote Friday.
“Mapdrawers only considered political data as a secondary consideration, after the [legal criteria] were satisfied, to ensure that the maps could garner enough votes in the Senate to be enacted.”
They contend Democrats haven’t proved redistricting harmed individual voters and there is no constitutional right to live in competitive districts.
“Rather than showing individualized harm, Plaintiffs’ experts measured statewide impacts of gerrymandering — using flawed algorithms, no less — and individual witnesses could not articulate a single way in which the boundaries of individual districts have burdened their votes, political speech, or association,” attorneys for Republican members of the Michigan Senate wrote Friday.
Indeed, while the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that gerrymandering based on race is illegal, the high court has yet to rule on the legality of drawing districts to favor one party.
Three federal judges are expected to decide the case in the next few weeks or months. Among other things, they could order new lines or special elections for 2020.
Two judges were appointed by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat: Denise Page-Hood and Eric Clay. The third judge, Gordon Quist, was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.
In November, when the panel cleared the case to proceed to trial, the judges split 2-1, with Quist dissenting.
In most cases, any appeal of the judges’ ruling would go to the more conservative Sixth Circuit. But because of the nature of the case, it would go to the the Supreme Court, attorneys have said.
The high court already is scheduled to weigh two separate gerrymandering cases about districts that favor Democrats in Maryland and Republicans in North Carolina.
A decision on those cases is due by June, a few months after the Michigan case is decided.
Republican lawyers in the Michigan case had sought a delay, arguing that any ruling would be superseded by findings from the high court.
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’