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U.S. District Court Rules Michigan's Political Districts Created By Gerrymandering Must Be Redrawn

On April 25th, 2019, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court - Eastern District of Michigan ruled in League of Women Voters of Michigan, et.al., v. Benson, et. al. that 27 of Michigan's political districts drawn after the 2010 census by the Republican-led Michigan Legislature are unconstitutional and must not be used in future elections.

The League of Women Voters of Michigan, along with several other Democratic voters, filed suit against the Michigan Secretary of State alleging that the legislative apportionment plan implemented in 2011 discriminates against Democratic voters by violating both their First Amendment free speech rights and Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights. Specifically, the affected districts are alleged to be "gerrymandered", meaning they were intentionally drawn in a way to ensure a particular outcome in an election by diluting the power of Democratic votes. Numerous parties intervened into this lawsuit after it was filed, including the Michigan Republican delegation of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican representatives and senators of the Michigan Legislature, and the entire Michigan Senate as a whole. A full trial was held in the U.S. District Court and the judges ruled that the affected districts were the result of partisan gerrymandering and were therefore unconstitutional.

Gerrymandering can seem apparent when one looks at a map of political districts drawn throughout the state and sees that the boundaries are drawn in a long, snake-like fashion inconsistent with natural features. Instead of compact geographic shapes like a square, some political districts are drawn to look like horseshoes around a city or drawn to extend hundreds of miles in a narrow corridor through several counties. The plaintiffs alleged that when the Republican legislature gerrymandered the affected districts, they were trying to accomplish one of two objectives. First, a district can be drawn to dilute the number of Democratic voters available to the point that a Republican victory is certain. Second, a district can be drawn to encompass as many Democratic voters as possible in very few districts so that, statewide, Democratic candidates will only win a very small number of total seats available. Across the country, federal courts are increasingly striking down these types of schemes and ordering legislatures to go back to the drawing board.

Initially, the plaintiffs moved to invalidate the entire legislative apportionment plan enacted in 2011, but the number of challenged districts was reduced to 34. Of those challenged districts, the judges found the following to be gerrymandered and thus violate the First and Fourteenth Amendment:

  • 1st Congressional District, spanning the entire Upper Peninsula and part of the northern Lower Peninsula. This seat is currently held by Rep. Jack Bergman (R - Watersmeet).
  • 4th Congressional District, covering a section of the middle Lower Peninsula that includes Wexford, Isabelle, Midland, Clare, Clinton, Grand Traverse, Gratiot, Leelanau, Kalkaska, Missaukee, Montcalm, Osceola and Roscommon counties. This seat is currently held by Rep. John Moolenaar (R - Midland).
  • 5th Congressional District, covering Tuscola and Genesee counties with portions of Bay and Saginaw counties. This seat is currently held by Rep. Dan Kildee (D - Flint Township).
  • 7th Congressional District, covering Branch, Eaton, Hillsdale, Jackson, Lenawee and Monroe counties and portions of Calhoun and Washtenaw counties. This seat is currently held by Rep. Tim Walberg (R - Tipton).
  • 8th Congressional District, covering Ingham, Livingston and northern Oakland counties. This seat is currently held by Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D - Holly).
  • 9th Congressional District, covering portions of Oakland and Macomb counties. This seat is currently held by Rep. Andy Levin (D - Bloomfield Township).
  • 10th Congressional District, covering all of Huron, Lapeer, St. Clair and Sanilac counties and parts of Macomb and Tuscola counties. This seat is currently held by Rep. Paul Mitchell (R - Dryden Township).
  • 11th Congressional District, covering parts of Oakland and Wayne counties. This seat is currently held by Rep. Haley Stevens (D - Rochester Hills).
  • 12th Congressional District, spanning the Wayne County Downriver communities and extending into Washtenaw County to include the City of Ann Arbor. This seat is currently held by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D - Dearborn).
  • Michigan Senate District 8, covering central Macomb County. This seat is currently held by Sen. Pete Lucido (R - Shelby Township).
  • Michigan Senate District 11, covering the I-696 corridor in southern Oakland County. This seat is currently held by Sen. Jeremy Moss (D - Southfield).
  • Michigan Senate District 12, covering the City of Pontiac and northeastern Oakland County. This seat is currently held by Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D - Beverly Hills).
  • Michigan Senate District 18, covering the City of Ann Arbor and eastern Washtenaw County. This seat is currently held by Sen. Jeff Irwin (D - Ann Arbor).
  • Michigan Senate District 24, covering northwestern Oakland County and southeastern Genesee County. This seat is currently held by Sen. Tom Barrett (R - Potterville).
  • Michigan Senate District 27, covering the City of Flint and northeastern Genesee County. This seat is currently held by Sen. Jim Ananich (D - Flint).
  • Michigan Senate District 36, covering much of the northeastern Lower Peninsula. This seat is currently held by Sen. Jim Stamas (R - Midland).
  • Michigan House District 24, covering Harrison Township and parts of Macomb and Clinton Townships, all in Macomb County. This seat is currently held by Rep. Steve Marino (R).
  • Michigan House District 32, covering portions of St. Clair and Macomb counties. This seat is currently held by Rep. Pamela Hornberger (R).
  • Michigan House District 51, covering the northwest corner of Oakland County and wraps around Flint in Genesee County. This seat is currently held by Rep. Mike Mueller (R).
  • Michigan House District 55, covering Augusta and York Townships and parts of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Township, Milan Township and Pittsfield Township, all in Washtenaw County. This seat is currently held by Rep. Rebekah Warren (D).
  • Michigan House District 60, covering the City of Kalamazoo and surrounding townships. This seat is currently held by Rep. John Hoadley (D).
  • Michigan House District 62, covering the northern part of Calhoun County. This seat is currently held by Rep. Jim Haadsma (D).
  • Michigan House District 63, covering parts of Calhoun and Kalamazoo counties. This seat is currently held by Rep. Matt Hall (R).
  • Michigan House District 75, covering parts of Kent County and the City of Grand Rapids. This seat is currently held by Rep. David LaGrand (D).
  • Michigan House District 83, covering Sanilac County and part of St. Clair County. This seat is currently held by Rep. Shane Hernandez (R).
  • Michigan House District 91, covering part of Muskegon County. This seat is currently held by Rep. Greg VanWoerkom (R).
  • Michigan House District 94, covering parts of southern Saginaw County and include the City of Frankenmuth. This seat is currently held by Rep. Rodney Wakeman (R).
  • Michigan House District 95, covering parts of central Saginaw County and include the City of Saginaw. This seat is currently held by Rep. Vanessa Guerra (D).

In addition to ordering that the above-drawn districts be redrawn on a map that must be approved by the U.S. District Court, the three-judge panel also ordered that special elections must take place for any affected Michigan Senate districts in 2020. Since state senators have four-year terms, the affected senator may or may not ordinarily have to run to keep their seat in 2020, but will now be required to stand election early if in an affected district. This does not affect U.S. Representatives or state representatives who are all required to run in 2020 anyway. Finally, the court ordered that the State of Michigan can enact a revised plan to submit to the federal court by August 1st, 2019 for approval, or else the federal court may devise and order its own political district plan. The federal court will appoint a special master to assist the court in determining that any proposed revised plan in appropriate under the U.S. Constitution.

This decision by the court is especially interesting in that it immediately followed an election cycle where Michigan voters approved Proposal 2, an amendment to the state constitution creating an Independent Redistricting Commission assuming the power to draw congressional and legislative districts from the state legislature. Since this proposal passed by over 61.27%, it is clear that many state residents are fed up with the effects of gerrymandering by the party in control of the Legislature. However, Republican lawmakers have already announced their intention to appeal the U.S. District Court's decision to the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court. Whether the appellate judges will grant a stay of judgment or order that the revised political map and special elections take place immediately remains to be seen. Either way, the battle over Michigan's legislative and congressional boundaries will continue and the final outcome is still uncertain.

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