Skirmishing has been underway for months. But the week before Christmas brought significant developments in both theaters:
• In Lansing, the volunteer organization that calls itself Voters Not Politicians capped a low-budget, high-energy petition campaign by turning in more than 425,000 signatures in support of its ballot proposal to wrest control of Michigan's redistricting process from the state Legislature. The campaign's remarkable success — volunteers gathered about 110,000 more signatures than the 315,000 required to place a citizen-sponsored initiative before Michigan voters — makes it more likely that VNP's proposal will appear on the November 2018 ballot.
• In Detroit, the Michigan League of Women Voters and 10 Democratic activists filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Michigan's legislative and congressional districts on grounds similar to those a federal court panel used to throw out Wisconsin's political map. If the Supreme Court upholds the Wisconsin decision next year, as many following the case predict, its decision could doom a redistricting scheme that has given Michigan Republicans a hammerlock on their own state's Legislature and congressional delegation since 2012.
Even if both efforts fall short, U.S. Census Bureau estimates released in December suggest that anemic population growth makes Michigan a top candidate to lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022. So, whoever draws the political lines will need to begin by collapsing the state's 14 congressional districts into 13.
Blowing up the status quo
Neither the Democrats' constitutional challenge nor the grassroots ballot initiative is a slam dunk. But last month’s developments raise the possibility that both efforts might succeed — radically altering both who's responsible for drawing Michigan's political boundaries and the legal requirements they are obliged to meet.
Mark Brewer, an election law specialist who formerly chaired the state Democratic Party, began crafting a legal challenge to Michigan's political boundaries even before the Supreme Court decided to review the Wisconsin gerrymandering case, know as Gill v. Whitford, last summer.
Like the plaintiffs in Gill, Brewer's clients argue that the redistricting scheme adopted by Michigan's Republican legislative majority after the 2010 Census systematically dilutes Democratic votes by packing most Democratic voters into a handful of districts and dispersing the remainder in concentrations too small to imperil safe Republican seats.
A special tribunal of federal judges ruled in November 2016 that Wisconsin's redistricting scheme handicapped Democrats' ability to translate their votes into legislative representation, assuring that Republicans retain control of the state Assembly even when Democratic Assembly candidates win most of the votes. But the tribunal's order requiring Wisconsin legislators to draw fairer lines is on hold while U.S. Supreme Court justices consider an appeal.
Preserving the appearance of fairness?
Until last month, it seemed likely that the Supreme Court might issue a ruling in the Wisconsin case early in 2018. If justices adopted the "wasted vote" formula, Brewer reasoned, it would be a possible for a new federal panel in Detroit to reject Michigan's gerrymandered map on the same grounds and force legislators to adopt a new, less partisan redistricting plan in time for the midterm election.
But hopes for a speedy decision were dashed last month when justices announced they would schedule oral arguments in a second gerrymandering case — this one brought by Maryland Republicans challenging the constitutionality of a Democratic redistricting scheme in that perennially blue state.
What justices hope to accomplish by taking up a second case that raises similar issues isn't clear. But some speculate that it would provide the the court an opportunity to demonstrate that both major parties have been gaming the redistricting process.
During last October's oral arguments in Gill, Chief Justice Chief Justice John Roberts expressed doubts that the court has the authority to throw out any redistricting scheme on the grounds that it's excessively partisan. Maryland Republicans aren't likely to change Roberts' mind — but tossing out maps gerrymandered by both parties would address the chief's concern that the high court could be accused of tipping the scales in one party's favor.
In any case, the court's decision to hear the Maryland case this March will likely push any blockbuster gerrymandering ruling to the end of its term in June — far too late to have an impact on the 2018 election.
Grassroots on fire
Five months ago, when a little-known group of Michigan activists proposed to place Michigan's political map-making authority in the hands of a 13-member citizen commission, it seemed like one of those well-intentioned reform proposals doomed by the lack of a deep-pocketed sponsor. The proposed commission's complexity — four Democrats, four Republicans and five non-affiliated voters, chosen by lot from a pool of volunteers — was another obstacle.
But VNP's simple message — that voters should choose their politicians, not the other way around — attracted a far-flung army of volunteers whose presence became conspicuous at shopping centers, farmers markets, athletic events and other public venues throughout the fall. By October, with petitioners still in the field, two long-time Republican operatives had launched the anti-reform Committee to Protect Voters Rights to spearhead opposition to the initiative.
Retired Michigan Chamber über-lobbyist Bob LaBrant and veteran elections lawyer Eric Doster — both of whom played key roles in the GOP's 2011 redistricting coup — say their committee will mount a legal challenge to keep VNP's proposal off the ballot and, failing that, will conduct a well-financed campaign to defeat it.
Other Republican groups, alarmed at early signs of popular support for the anti-gerrymandering initiative, have attempted to paint Voters Not Politicians as a front for Democratic partisans whose real motive is to circumvent a redistricting process controlled by Michigan's Republican legislative majority.
But although the DeVos family-funded Michigan Freedom Fund asserts that seven of VNP's 10 charter members have donated a combined $5,648 to Democratic candidates or causes, none has ever held a leadership position with the Democratic Party, and VNP has taken pains to maintain its independence.
Katie Fahey, the group's president and treasurer, notes that VNP's proposal would dramatically circumscribe both parties' roles in the map-making process, barring anyone who has held a partisan elected office, served as a party official or worked as an employee or consultant for such a political insider in the last six years from the 13-member citizens' commission.
Indeed, many of the voters energized by VNP's campaign appear to be independents enraged to discover — rather recently, in many cases — the degree to which elected politicians in both parties have been able to bend political boundaries to their own purposes.
A pox on both their houses?
What makes the fights playing out in the federal courts and on the Michigan ballot so interesting is not the prospect that Democrats might regain the upper hand in their binary power struggle with Republicans, but the possibility that both parties will emerge with dramatically reduced roles in the redistricting process.
Neither of Michigan's two major parties is going to give up its privileged status without a fight; each still dreams of configuring Michigan's political map to maximize the impact of its own voters. But the distortions engendered by such partisan gerrymandering have become a cancer on representative government. We can't maintain the pretense of democratic rule if the party that gets more votes than its rival regularly gets fewer legislative or congressional seats.
So the clock is ticking. And, in Michigan at least, the arrangement in which the party with a legislative majority dictates who votes in which district may be coming to an end at last.
You may contact Brian Dickerson at the Detroit Free Press at: [email protected]