That's when voters adopted Proposal 2, a constitutional amendment that wrests the power to draw those boundaries from the state Legislature and hands it to a new, independent citizens' commission after the 2020 Census.
Many Republicans have been worried that federal judges presiding over a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of Michigan's existing districts could overhaul Michigan's political map even sooner, forcing the GOP to relinquish the advantages its candidates enjoy under the current arrangement before the next statewide election.
So those same Republicans must have been secretly relieved late last Friday when newly elected Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson revealed a surprisingly modest proposal to settle that lawsuit, one that leaves most of the Michigan's 162 legislative and congressional districts intact until 2022.
And many Democrats were likely disappointed by the proposed settlement, which seeks to redraw just 11 state House districts in time for the 2020 presidential election.
But Benson's incremental approach could bring a swift, reasonable end to the lawsuit the League of Women Voters and 11 Democratic plaintiffs, including U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, filed in 2017. It should also appeal to voters who approved Proposal 2 in hopes of ending partisan gerrymanders once and for all.
The roots of disaffection
Legislators lost their map-making license after the emergence of emails revealing that Republican state lawmakers who controlled the redistricting process after the 2010 Census had deliberately packed most of Michigan's Democratic voters into a small number of congressional and legislative districts.
The emails provided smoking-gun evidence that Republicans had used their authority to systematically dilute the value of Democratic votes, likely violating the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters.
Proposal 2 explicitly forbids the citizens' commission that will draw lines after the 2020 Census from tilting the electoral playing field in either party's favor. But Republicans have been hoping against hope to keep Michigan's current boundaries in place for one more election cycle, notwithstanding the League's pending lawsuit.
Benson, a former law school dean who specializes in election law, has long shared the plaintiffs' view that Michigan's current political map illegally exaggerates Republicans' voting power. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that she was more sympathetic than her Republican predecessor to the League's lawsuit.
Indeed, the disclosure that the new secretary of state was in settlement discussions with the plaintiffs triggered panic among Republicans. Some GOP lawmakers charged that Benson and former state Democratic chairman Mark Brewer, who represents the League in its lawsuit, were cooking up a "backroom deal" to avenge the Republican gerrymander with a wholesale overhaul of the state's political boundaries, one that would remake all 162 of Michigan's congressional and legislative districts. One right-leaning columnist speculated that Benson would even seek a special state Senate election in 2020, just halfway through the incumbent senators' four-year terms.
Striking a balance
But the deal Benson struck with the League proposes a more limited remedy: The state Legislature, which is still controlled by Republicans, would be required to reconfigure only 10 percent of Michigan's 110 state House districts, although that process would likely impact some districts adjacent to the 11 targeted for makeovers.
The current boundaries of the state's 14 congressional districts and 38 state Senate districts would remain in place until 2021, when the newly established citizens' commission will draw an entirely new map.
In short, the proposed settlement buys the rigged map Republican legislators adopted in 2011 more time than it was likely to get if the League's lawsuit went trial as scheduled next month. So why did Benson agree to it?
In a phone interview late Friday, the new secretary of state noted that the League's lawyers had marshaled "significant evidence" that Republican legislators had drawn the state's existing political boundaries "to circumscribe the constitutional rights of Michigan voters." Benson wasn't about to ask the state's new attorney general, Dana Nessel, to defend districts the secretary of state herself believed were unconstitutional.
At the same time, Benson was eager to avoid the costs and political upheaval likely to attend a wholesale overhaul of Michigan's political map. Her solution was to acknowledge the plaintiffs' central claim — that Republicans had deliberately rigged Michigan's political boundaries to dilute the power of Democratic voters — in exchange for the League's agreement to drop its challenges to the state's congressional and state Senate districts.
Republicans are unlikely to embrace the proposed settlement with any real enthusiasm. Although it would allow the two legislative chambers the GOP controls to draw new House districts without the threat of veto by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the revised map would have to be approved by a three-judge panel overseeing the League's lawsuit. And making even a small number of state House seats more competitive would put the Republicans at risk of losing their narrow House majority in 2020.
Even so, it's hard to argue that the proposed settlement — which can be implemented only if the three-judge panel approves it — is as onerous or unreasonable as preserving the status quo.
And its adoption by the court would move Michigan marginally closer to the ideal our government's founders envisioned — a democratic republic in which voters pick their elected representatives, not the other way around.
Brian Dickerson is the Detroit Free Press' editorial page editor. Distributed by TNS.