Benson reaches gerrymandering settlement to GOP’s ire

By: - January 25, 2019 11:25 pm

Current Michigan House districts | Michigan Legislature

Updated: 10:10 a.m. 1/27/19

Eleven state House districts will be redrawn under a settlement reached in a gerrymandering lawsuit with Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office, but Republicans are already calling foul on the agreement and say a court battle looms.

Benson, a Democrat, agreed with plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters of Michigan, that districts drawn in 2011 favor Republican victories in state House races, violating the state’s Constitution.

“As the state’s chief election officer, I have a responsibility to ensure our elections operate in a manner that is fair, accessible and in compliance with the constitutional mandate of one person, one vote.” Benson said in a statement Friday. “I believe today’s settlement strikes a balance between recognizing the unconstitutionality of the 2011 redistricting maps while reaching a remedy that is limited in scope and impact given the length of time these districts have been in place.”

Republicans will likely be unsatisfied with new districts if a three-judge panel approves the consent decree. The Michigan Republican Party has already slammed the agreement as an attempt to “steal” the state House in 2020 in a statement the party released Friday.

As part of the settlement of the case League of Women Voters of Michigan, et. al., v. Jocelyn Benson, plaintiffs agreed to drop claims that challenged the constitutionality of state Senate and congressional districts, along with four state House districts.

In exchange, the agreement would have Michigan redraw 11 other political boundaries: the 24th, 32nd, 51st, 55th, 60th, 63rd, 76th, 91st, 92nd, 94th and 95th state House districts.

Democrats already represent five of the 11 districts to be redrawn under the consent decree. That includes districts that elected state Reps. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo), Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids), Terry Sabo (D-Muskegon) and Vanessa Guerra (D-Saginaw).

Earlier court documents indicated that Benson and the plaintiffs were negotiating a “compromise in which fewer than the 34 challenged [state legislative and congressional] districts would be redistricted.”

Federal judges Eric Clay, Denise Page Hood and Gordon Quist will now decide on the deal filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit.*

“It is important that the hearing take place relatively soon so that the redistricting work can commence and conclude in time for the 2020 election in the House,” the consent decree said. “The parties believe that there remains ample time to complete this work and to complete any necessary review of the decree by a higher court.”

The settlement asked “that the court find that the compromise is fair, reasonable, adequate, and in the public interest and approve it.”

Democrats have argued in the past that the state’s political lines are drawn to favor Republican victories. The GOP-controlled Legislature redrew them in 2011 and then-Gov. Rick Snyder, also a Republican, signed the boundaries into law. Republicans have dominated the Legislature ever since.

Benson said the settlement “strikes an important balance” limiting disruption of political boundaries while acknowledging “the harm done to voters through attempts to rig the outcomes of elections through partisan gerrymandering.”

But further challenges in court are likely, Tony Zammit, spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party, told the Advance.

“This settlement clearly is an attempt by Jocelyn Benson and the Democrats to try and steal the State House of Representatives in 2020,” Zammit said. “The Democrats know it will be nearly impossible to redraw these eleven districts without affecting countless others, causing electoral chaos.”

Zammit said they will also have to rely on “outdated” data to draw new lines that “will not accurately reflect the demographics of our state.”

According to Benson’s office, the new districts will be drawn with the same data used to craft Michigan’s current maps, in 2011. They are the most recent complete Census data, her office said.

New districts will then be drawn after the 2020 elections, when a citizen-backed referendum, Proposal 2 of 2018, takes effect. That creates an independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw new boundaries.

Prior to the settlement, three state senators’ terms may have been shortened by two years if Senate district lines had been redrawn. The state Senate filed a motion to intervene in the court case when that was still on the table.

The Advance previously reported on Senate efforts to intervene in the case and potentially delay the settlement.

But the new agreement leaves state Senate and congressional boundaries off the table. The “congressional interveners” include U.S. Reps. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden) and others who did not agree to the settlement.

In a prior brief in support of the Senate’s motion to intervene, lawyers argued that Benson “apparently is declining to defend Michigan’s current duly enacted congressional and state legislative apportionment plans,” and that “the Senate’s interests” are “no longer being vigorously defended.”

However, lawyers for plaintiffs in the case argued that they — along with the state Senate — no longer have legal interest in the case because congressional and Senate districts would no longer be redrawn, if the agreement were approved.

The deal “recognizes how the 2018 election results produced Michigan congressional caucuses that more closely matched votes and seats” and “recognizes the unique burdens and uncertainties of special elections in the Senate,” the consent decree said.

“And it directly addresses the enduring gerrymander in the House,” the decree continued. “It is hard to argue that it is not within the range of reasonableness given all the uncertainties in this action.”

Attorney Mark Brewer, former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, is also a plaintiff in the suit. Brewer did not immediately return a phone call or text message from the Michigan Advance.

House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) supports the agreement.

“Michiganders have known for years that our current legislative districts silenced their voices at the ballot box, which is why Democrats fought to end gerrymandering,” she said. “If the court approves the proposed consent decree, House Democrats stand ready to work with our Republican counterparts to ensure that the new House districts are fair and constitutional.”

* Correction: This story has been updated on the judges’ status and where the case is being heard.

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.