Federal suit alleges GOP ‘gerrymandering’ in Michigan

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — A new federal lawsuit alleges political district maps drawn by Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature discriminate against Democratic voters to protect GOP majorities at the state Capitol and in Congress.

Former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer filed the suit Friday on behalf of the Michigan League of Women Voters and various Democrats, including former state Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Fred Durhal Jr. of Detroit.

The complaint contends 2011 maps drawn by Republicans represent a “particularly egregious example of party gerrymandering,” whereby a party in power draws districts to give itself an advantage in elections.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit against Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, the state’s top election officer. It claims Michigan maps were “developed in a private, secret process” and violate free speech, association and equal protection rights of Democratic voters.

“Partisan gerrymandering inverts the Constitutional order by allowing those in power to treat voters as pawns to be shuffled back and forth based on their political allegiances, manipulating the electoral process in order to preserve and enhance the controlling party’s power,” says the complaint.

Michigan Republicans say the 2011 district maps were designed in accordance with established state law and the federal Voting Rights Act.

“Gerrymandering is against the law,” said Michigan GOP spokeswoman Sarah Anderson, who suggested Brewer filed the complaint in an attempt to “grab headlines before Christmas.”

“We haven’t seen the lawsuit yet, so I don’t want to comment on the actual content of it, but my guess is it has about the same amount of credibility as his recount lawsuit for (2016 Green Party presidential candidate) Jill Stein.”

The lawsuit comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers two related cases that allege gerrymandering by majority Republicans in Wisconsin and by majority Democrats in Maryland. Justices heard arguments in the Wisconsin case in October.

Separately, a Michigan group called Voters Not Politicians has collected more than 425,000 signatures for a potential 2018 ballot proposal to create an independent redistricting commission that would redraw lines after the next census in 2020.

The new Michigan complaint alleges a “durable” gerrymander in Michigan, pointing to election results showing that Republicans maintained sizable majorities in the state Legislature and Congress despite narrow statewide vote margins.

Republicans congressional candidates won between 45.6 percent and 50.5 percent of the statewide vote totals in 2012, 2014 and 2016 but won 9 out of 14 seats each year, according to the suit. GOP state Senate candidates won 50.4 percent of the statewide vote in 2014 but won 71.1 percent of the seats. They won 50.3 percent of state House votes in 2016 but control 63 out of 100 seats, or 57.3 percent.

“We believe our suit, based on the evidence and the law, is stronger than the Wisconsin case, and in the Wisconsin case, a federal court struck down those maps,” Brewer said.

U.S. Supreme Court justices have criticized partisan gerrymandering in the past but questioned whether there is a manageable way to measure the alleged impact.

The Wisconsin case introduced the “efficiency gap,” a mathematical measurement of the proportion of “wasted votes” cast for candidates of either political party. Wasted votes come in two forms: lost votes for candidates who don’t win and excess votes for candidates who do.

The theory holds that when a party seeks to gerrymander a state, it consolidates opposition votes in “safe” seats while spreading its own votes across more districts. By maximizing the wasted votes for the opposition while minimizing its own, a party creates a large efficiency gap.

Researchers Nicholas Stephanopoulos and Eric McGhee first proposed the efficiency gap measurement in a 2014 University of Chicago Law Review article. The paper highlighted Michigan, Wisconsin and 11 other states with unusually large efficiency gaps in 2012 state House elections, the first contest since 2011 redistricting.

The Michigan League of Women Voters, the lead plaintiff in the new suit, describes itself as a nonpartisan organization whose membership includes Democrat, Republican and independent voters.

“Michigan’s State House, Senate and Congressional districts are among the worst in the nation when it comes to partisan gerrymandering, and today’s lawsuit aims to fix the problem and restore voters’ rights to choose who best represents them,” league president Judy Karandjeff said in a statement.

The complaint asks the federal court to convene a three-judge panel to hear the case and declare current districts unconstitutional. If a replacement plan is not approved by the state Legislature ahead of 2018 elections, the suit asks the court to establish new district boundaries instead.

Brewer first hinted at the lawsuit in February, when he sent letters putting roughly 60 state legislators, staffers and other officials involved in redistricting after the 2010 U.S. Census. The letters demanded they preserve any relevant evidence.

A spokesman for Secretary of State Johnson said Friday her office has not yet reviewed the lawsuit and had no comment.