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Michigan's political maps go on trial in redistricting lawsuit

congressional districts map of Southeast Michigan
Michigan House of Representatives
Southeast Michigan's congressional districts post-2010 redistricting.

Was the last re-drawing of Michigan’s political district maps so biased in Republicans’ favor, they were illegal?

That question literally went on trial Tuesday, with a three-judge panel in Detroit’s federal court hearing arguments for and against Michigan’s 2011 redistricting maps.

Democrats and the League of Women Voters took those maps to court. They claim that both quantitative research and insider emails show the state’s last redistricting was a conscious Republican gerrymander.

The plaintiffs call it a “secretive, intense effort” to dilute the power of Democratic votes, and cement Republican advantages after the GOP’s 2010 electoral wins.

Their first witnesses were League of Women Voters President Susan Smith, and George Washington University political scientist Christopher Warshaw.

Attorneys for the Republican defendants tried to chip away at their case for both the political consequences of the redistricting, and dispute the fact that there’s a mathematical basis for determining gerrymandering.

They also argue the federal district court has no jurisdiction to hear this case, because the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide on a constitutional standard for gerrymandering. On Monday, the Supreme Court shot down an effort to delay the case until the court hears gerrymandering cases from other states.

Jason Torchinsky is an attorney for some of the GOP defendants, which include both state legislators and congressional Republicans. He said the political map naturally favors Republicans, because Democratic voters tend to be packed into urban areas and “it becomes harder to translate those votes into proportionate seats.”

“Plaintiffs are really here because they have a political geography problem, and they’re looking for the courts to solve it,” said Torchinsky, who also said Democrats’ gains in more recent elections suggest there’s no real gerrymandering problem.

But Warshaw, the George Washington political scientist, said his research shows that while political geography changed negligibly between 2010 and 2012, Republicans picked up a demonstrable advantage when it came to translating votes into representation during those years.

The 2011 redistricting maps produced a “more extreme partisan advantage in Michigan, in all three chambers, than in almost any other state in history over the past 45 years,” Warshaw told the court.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, is listed as one of the defendants—replacing the original primary defendant, former Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

Benson has said she agrees with the lawsuit, and her lawyer Jason Eldridge told the court Benson “does not plan to call witnesses or introduce evidence disputing gerrymandering.”

Benson does agree with the Republican defendants on one point, though. Since the judge's ruling has the potential to redraw Michigan’s political maps before the 2020 elections, Eldridge suggested they not redraw State Senate districts and require a 2020 special election for those seats—something Benson suggests would be unduly disruptive to state elections.

The trial is expected to last about a week.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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