Susan J. Demas: Michigan GOP’s redistricting scam is part of national power grab

April 29, 2019 8:22 am

Anti-gerrymandering protest, October 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. | Olivier Douliery, Getty Images

In politics, coverage is almost exclusively driven by the horserace: who’s winning and who’s losing.

But in Michigan, a federal three-judge panel just unanimously ruled that the rules of the game here have been fixed since 2011. So in other words, all the endless punditry of brilliant Republican strategy and #DemsinDisarray is even more meaningless than you thought.

Here’s what happened.

Republicans in charge of the state Legislature also controlled the 2011 redistricting process, determining the boundaries for the state House, state Senate and Congress. The maps were signed into law by then-GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

The League of Women Voters and Democratic voters filed suit, leading to the usual hot takes that Dems had sour grapes. We also were told that nobody cared about redistricting because it was inside baseball (leaving it to nerds like me with my 2011 treatise on the subject).

But a funny thing happened in the 2018 election. Voters overwhelmingly passed Proposal 2 setting up an independent redistricting commission.

The nonpartisan group, Voters Not Politicians, was, not surprisingly, endlessly assailed by Republicans who like the current system just fine (since they control it). The organization’s argument rested on the idea that politicians shouldn’t be the ones drawing the lines and “picking their voters.”

Michigan voters agreed. But there’s one election left under the old maps next year. However, the three-judge panel — two appointed by Democrats and one by a Republican — said an immediate remedy was needed, calling for special elections for some Senate districts in 2020.

The judges concluded that the districts were badly gerrymandered to “historical proportions,” violating both the First and 14th Amendment rights of Michigan Democratic voters.

Michigan congressional districts | Wikimedia Commons

That may have something to do with the reams of evidence uncovered about the 2011 process, in which one GOP operative suggested a way to “cram ALL of the Dem garbage” into Southeast Michigan congressional seats.

Another goal laid out in the emails was to increase the Black population in majority Black districts, thus diluting their power — which isn’t racist at all, oh no.

Naturally, Republicans have gone ballistic, with the conservative Detroit News editorial page (whose brass assiduously seems to avoid reading its own newspaper’s very good coverage of the case) whining about “chaos.”

Oh, boo hoo. The Michigan GOP’s agenda during its eight years of unfettered control was pretty damn chaotic, ramming through Right to Work, anti-abortion restrictions, anti-LGBT measures, tax hikes on poor people and hollowed campaign finance laws.

Since a federal court found that Republicans rigged the rules of the game, those would appear to be ill-gotten gains.

Right to Work protest at the Michigan Capitol, December 2012 | Susan J. Demas

But here’s the thing. Republicans don’t care. They will hold onto power no matter what, which is why they’re appealing the case to the most conservative U.S. Supreme Court in modern history, praying that will save them.

I know that sounds harsh. I should try couching this in chin-stroking “both sides do it” rhetoric, as is fashionable on liberal editorial pages. But power grabs are the GOP’s current stock and trade.

Let’s start with the High Court itself. Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked President Barack Obama from appointing a new justice in his last year, handing the pick to now-President Trump. Talk about rigging the process at the highest level.

We’ve seen this play again and again in Michigan. During Lame Duck last year, there were a parade of GOP bills yanking power from incoming Democrats Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. Fortunately, Snyder was in legacy-building mode and the worst legislation never saw the light of day.

But Snyder did sign a bill making it harder for ballot initiatives like Proposal 2 to ever get before voters again.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Once Democratic executives were sworn-in, the GOP-controlled legislative majority (produced by illegal maps, remember) continued the war on their power. The Legislature dumped Whitmer’s environmental executive order because it was too mean to polluters. Committees have taken a hatchet to Benson’s and Nessel’s budgets.

And just last week, Republicans made the laughable (they lack the votes) — but still ominous — threat to impeach Nessel because they don’t like her pro-choice politics.

It’s not just Michigan. Republicans across the country have shown a blatant disregard for the rule of law, starting, of course with Trump and his repeated attempts to quash standard investigations into his campaign and administration.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (3rd R) and President Donald Trump, January 9, 2019 |Alex Wong, Getty Images

Just look at the GOP blithely stripping power from newly elected Democratic governors in North Carolina and Wisconsin. Witness Utah and Maine Republicans ignoring the will of voters who wanted Medicaid expanded. Look at Florida Republicans essentially pursuing a poll tax as revenge for voters passing a 2018 law allowing felons to vote.

These are not the actions of a party confident that voters share their vision for America. These are wanton, desperate abuses of power.

A three-judge panel in Detroit just said the jig is up. What happens next will be a real test of our current legal system — and the results will reverberate far beyond Michigan.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.