League of Women Voters joins Michigan Democrats in lawsuit targeting gerrymandering

Attorney Mark Brewer
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The Michigan League of Women Voters and a group of Democrats filed a lawsuit Friday in federal court in Detroit, alleging Michigan's congressional and state electoral districts are unlawfully gerrymandered.

The lawsuit against Michigan's chief election official -- Secretary of State Ruth Johnson --  is the latest effort in Michigan and around the country to try to undo the drawing of election maps in ways proponents say have disenfranchised voters and unfairly disadvantaged Democrats to the advantage of Republicans.

Related: Anti-gerrymander group turns in signatures to get on Nov. ballot in Michigan

Severe partisan gerrymandering in Michigan violates federal constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection under the law, the suit alleges.

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It singles out "Michigan Democrats based on their political affiliation, and intentionally places them in voting districts that reduce or eliminate the power of their votes."

If successful, the suit could change the way congressional and state legislative lines are drawn in 2021, using data from the 2020 census. It calls on the court to strike down current Michigan redistricting laws and draw up new election maps if a constitutional redistricting plan is not put in place.

A similar case, out of Wisconsin, is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a separate effort, a nonpartisan group called Voters Not Politicians submitted more than 425,000 signatures to the Michigan Secretary of State Monday in a volunteer-led effort to amend the state constitution and take the drawing of political lines out of the direct control of politicians. The group wants a 2018 ballot question to create a non-partisan citizen redistricting commission.

Judy Karandjeff, president of the Michigan League of Women Voters, said in a news release that Michigan's state and federal election 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.”

Southfield attorney Mark Brewer, a former Michigan Democratic Party chairman who is representing the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, sent registered letters in January to about 60 individuals who could be witnesses in the case. The letter put potential witnesses on notice not to destroy records about how the districts were created in 2011. At the time, both chambers of the Legislature, plus the Michigan Supreme Court, were under GOP control, as they remain so today.

The lawsuit says the 2011 redistricting was "particularly egregious," with election maps "developed in a private, secret process by Republican consultants, legislative staff and legislators to the exclusion of Democrats and the public."

The suit quotes U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, saying extreme gerrymandering violates a core principle of democratic government, that "voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around."

The lead plaintiff, the Michigan League of Women Voters, is nonpartisan, but promotes political responsibility and has an interest in reforming the redistricting process, the suit says. The other 11 named plaintiffs are Democrats, including former Democratic state representatives Fred Durhal, Jr. and Rashida Tlaib, both from Detroit.

Democrats blame gerrymandered districts drawn by Republicans for giving them far less legislative punch than the size of their vote.

In 2012, Michigan Republicans received 46% of the votes cast for state House, but won 54% of the seats. In 2014, Republicans received 49% of the votes for state House, and won 57% of the seats. And in 2016, Republicans received just over 50% of the votes for state House, and again won 57% of the seats.

In Michigan congressional races in 2016, Republicans received 51% of the votes, but won 64% of the seats.

In 2016, a Wisconsin panel of federal judges ruled 2-1 that district lines approved by the Wisconsin Legislature deprived Democratic voters of their rights to be represented, violating the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

That case is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in October.

A similar case is proceeding in Pennsylvania after the U.S. Supreme Court in November rejected a request to put it on hold.

"We think we have good evidence of partisan gerrymandering in Michigan that meets the standard set by the court in Wisconsin," Brewer told the Free Press in January.

"There is evidence the Republicans did it intentionally," he said.

The federal court in Wisconsin used a test called the "efficiency gap" to determine if partisan advantages gained through the drawing of district lines is excessive. The test relies on a comparison of how many wasted votes are cast by supporters of each party.

Examples of wasted votes are those cast far in excess of the number needed to win, due to the partisan make-up of the district.

"A party gerrymanders by increasing the number of the opposing party's 'wasted' votes and minimizing its own 'wasted' votes," the suit alleges.

"In each of the state legislative bodies and the congressional delegation, Democratic candidates now have to win many more votes statewide than Republican candidates in order for their party to win the same number of seats."

Robert LaBrant, who is senior counsel at the Republican consulting firm the Sterling Corp. and who, like Brewer, has had extensive involvement with redistricting efforts in Michigan, said in January it's likely a three-judge federal panel in Michigan -- which the lawsuit requests --  would wait to find out how the U.S. Supreme Court handles the Wisconsin case.

To move to a system in Michigan that minimizes wasted votes would involve throwing out years of established principles related to how legislative lines are drawn, such as using counties as basic building blocks and drawing lines along existing municipal boundaries, he said. Avoiding wasted votes in Detroit would involve using spoke-like districts that extend from Detroit into western Wayne and Oakland and Macomb counties, LaBrant said.

 

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