Federal court rules congressional maps invalid, orders state Senate elections

By: - April 25, 2019 2:50 pm

Michigan Senate Districts | Michigan Legislature

Updated: 4:23 p.m., 5:00 p.m., 5:19 p.m., 5:56 p.m.

Judges from the U.S. Eastern District Court ruled Thursday that Michigan must redraw maps of 34 congressional and legislative districts ahead of the 2020 election and hold special state Senate elections next year for affected seats.

The ruling in League of Women Voters v. Benson orders Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson “to conduct special elections in 2020 for the Senate districts that are included in the Challenged Districts, and for any Senate district affected by any remedial map approved by this Court,” and prevents all 34 districts in question from being used in the upcoming 2020 elections.

Sec. of State Jocelyn Benson
Jocelyn Benson in Detroit, April 11, 2019 | Ken Coleman

The decision is a victory for the League and Democrats, who argued that Michigan’s districts were gerrymandered to the extent that they violated citizens’ constitutional rights. They were drawn in 2011 by a GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder. Republicans are expected to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thirty-four state House, state Senate and U.S. House districts were successfully challenged.

Judy Karandjeff, president of the League of Women Voters of Michigan, said that the group “[looks] forward to remedying all of these districts in time for the 2020 elections.”

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the formal defendant in the lawsuit, said “The court’s ruling confirms that these Michigan state House and Senate and U.S. congressional districts are unconstitutional. I respect that decision, as should we all.”

The court has given the Legislature until Aug. 1 to submit its new maps, and stated that if they fail to do so, the court will draw the maps unilaterally.

The three-judge panel ruled that Republicans in charge of drawing Michigan’s congressional maps in 2011 created them “with discriminatory intent,” and that their purpose was to “subordinate the interests Democrats [sic] and entrench Republicans in power by diluting the weight of Democratic voters’ votes.”

The panel added that the mostly Republican intervenors in the lawsuit “failed to establish that any legitimate or neutral factor justifies this discrimination.”

The judges on the panel were U.S. Circuit Court Judge Eric Clay, who penned the decision, Detroit’s U.S. District Court Judge Denise Page Hood, and Grand Rapids’ U.S. District Court Judge Gordon Quist. The former two were appointed by former President Bill Clinton while the latter was appointed by former President George H.W. Bush.

Sen. Jim Ananich
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich speaking at Lansing Community College, April 18, 2019 | Gov. Whitmer photo

The ruling orders special elections to be held for affected state Senate districts in 2020, two years ahead of their original schedule. State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said in a statement that “We expect there to be a lot of legal process ahead of us. If, at the end of the day, we’re to run in 2020, we will run robust races as we always have done.”

Michigan’s Senate Democrats sent out a fundraising appeal via email Thursday evening in the wake of the ruling, saying that “holding Senate elections in 20 months puts us dangerously behind in fundraising” and “We will be unable to support districts that could flip the Michigan Senate for the first time in 20 years if we don’t raise more — and raise it fast.”*

Senate Republicans maintained control of the chamber in 2018’s elections, despite losing their supermajority. Democrats won 2 percent more of the overall popular vote while capturing only seven of the 26 seats up for grabs — a result that Democratic activists pointed to as proof of the map’s inherent bias toward Republicans.

Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal group Progress Michigan, said, “The Sixth Circuit Court completely vindicated the plaintiffs who brought sought to overturn the partisan districts drawn by the GOP and corporate lobbyists and to shine a light on the undemocratic practice of gerrymandering.”

“The Senate is reviewing the details of the ruling and will file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Republican Senate Majority Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) in a statement. “We will prepare to comply with this most recent ruling while we await the outcome of the appeal.”*

Gerrymandering lawsuits in Maryland, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania have been recently appealed to the Supreme Court, although the court declined to hear the latter. Maryland’s case involves a partisan gerrymander favoring Democrats while the latter two, like Michigan’s, have been ruled to purposely favor Republicans.

The districts the court ordered to be redrawn are U.S. Congress Districts 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12; state Senate Districts 8, 10, 11, 12, 14, 18, 22, 27, 32, and 36; and state House districts 24, 32, 51, 52, 55, 60, 62 63, 75, 76, 83, 91, 92, 94, and 95.

Haley Stevens and Jocelyn Benson
U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson at a voting rights roundtable, April 23, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Freshman U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester) noted at a recent event with Benson that her own district, the 11th, was “one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country,” requiring the 10th-highest rate of voter turnout in the nation to flip the previously Republican-held seat.

Michigan’s redistricting process is set to change after the 2020 census, as voters last year approved Proposal 2. The constitutional amendment sets up an independent redistricting commission to draw state and federal legislative districts.

* Correction: The story has been updated with the correct information on the districts that were challenged and further context and comment.

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Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson

Derek Robertson is a former reporter for the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.