Democrats claim GOP manipulation of political boundaries

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
Map shows boundaries of Michigan's congressional districts since 2013.

The battle over gerrymandering in Michigan continued in federal court Wednesday as several witnesses testified how they thought Republican legislators unfairly drew state House, Senate and congressional districts to favor the GOP.

A three-judge panel heard testimony from former state Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillion and Michael Vatter, a mapping expert with the Michigan Senate Democrats. Both described in detail the process of "packing and cracking" districts that the GOP-controlled Legislature used to create stronger GOP districts and ensure Republicans kept power. 

Dillon, a former state representative, testified about his own district in the Grand Rapids region that was shaped into a super Democratic district. The district went from highly competitive in 2010 when Dillon won 50 percent to 48 percent after he said he knocked on 20,000 doors to 2012, when he won 76-24 percent over his Republican opponent. 

He told the judges that candidates were not only loathe to run in districts made less competitive by redistricting but bedrock donors would shy away, too. "There would be a term we would use, no way in hell," Dillon said, in referencing how no one wanted involvement in a gerrymandered district.

"It's very difficult to recruit candidates or raise money," Dillon said, adding that it was even arduous to find volunteers to help knock on doors in a district that was heavily Republican.

It was the second day of testimony in a case brought by the League of Women Voters and several Democrats. Testimony will continue Thursday, and the defense is expected to call one witness.

On cross examination from defense attorney Kevin Fanning, Dillon was asked about how two Democrats — Elissa Slotkin in the 8th and Haley Stevens in the 11th congressional districts, respectively — won in "cracked" districts.

"The U.S. hockey team beat Russia" during the 1980 Olympics, but it didn't happen 9 out of 10 times before, he said.

Political experts have said the unpopularity of Republican President Donald Trump helped Democratic candidates in those districts. Stevens ran in a district where incumbent Republican Rep. David Trott retired.

Dillon also lamented about how the Democratic National Committee run by then-chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz shifted more money to national races and away from states to compete. Gerrymandered districts made it extra difficult to field quality candidates and raise money, he said.

Meanwhile, the process Vatter said he witnessed in 2011 was done "close to the vest" by Republican officials. The redrawn maps were crafted mostly in secret until shortly before they were approved in public votes, he said.

In many cases, from the Upper Peninsula to Metro Detroit, Republicans drew maps that purposely made competitive districts lean heavily toward the GOP and shifted out several towns to "pack" the district, said Vatter, a Senate Democratic Caucus computer coordinator. The result also created several but fewer "super" Democratic districts, he said.

Republican attorneys have argued that the maps are constitutional even if they may not be the best crafted political boundaries. Democrats, who want districts redrawn for the 2020 elections, are demanding court relief for what is a “naturally occurring" problem in which Democrats are highly concentrated in a handful of urban areas, making it harder to translate statewide votes into proportional seats, they have said.

For much of his testimony, Vatter stood up at a screen with a map of Michigan broken down by color-coded districts to point out how they shifted.

On cross examination by lawyers representing the state legislative and congressional Republicans, Vatter acknowledged he knew of a few legislative Democrats who supported the maps the way they were drawn.

Vatter's appearance happened after the testimony of Karen Sherwood, 76, of the Midland region. Democrats have an advantage in registered voters in the state, yet Republicans have controlled many more seats due to gerrymandering, she said.

The districts should be drawn to reflect the Democratic advantage, Sherwood said.

The Midland region traditionally have voted for Republicans. The congressional seat that includes Midland has favored the GOP for decades.

"The disagreement isn't about the gerrymandering," Sherwood said.  I think the disagreement is, do we have to continue living under this?"

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