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Redistricting commission mulls future beyond lawsuits

A sign points out a Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission meeting in Midland.
Brett Dahlberg

Michigan's secretary of state filed an amicus brief with the state Supreme Court Thursday, urging the court to set an accelerated timeline for the drawing of a new state House map if the version being challenged in court is struck down.

Tracy Wimmer, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of State, said the department is not taking a side on the lawsuit.

“There’s no position on the maps themselves. It has to do with recognizing the deadlines involved with the implementation of the maps and the administration of elections, which the Secretary of State and the Bureau of Elections are tasked with doing,” Wimmer said.

There are several deadlines months before the upcoming August 2 primary election that the state must meet to ensure it runs smoothly.

“It’s an extremely labor-intensive process for the bureau of elections to update the qualified voter file to reflect the new maps,” Wimmer said. “We are doing all the work that we can presently, which historically, it takes about six months.”

The candidate filing deadline for partisan offices is in just over two months: April 19.

The state department's amicus brief was filed in League of Women Voters of MI v. Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. The lawsuit claims the redistricting commission’s House map illegally benefits Republicans.

Meanwhile, another lawsuit in federal court aims to throw out the commission’s congressional map based on uneven populations within districts and the splitting of municipalities.

Under the constitutional amendment creating the commission, the group will disband once it has no more work before it. That could happen after it takes care of some administrative items and closes out the current lawsuits, if no more litigation immediately arises.

That concerns commission chair Rebecca Szetela, who voiced worries during a meeting Thursday about more lawsuits being filed after commissioners go their separate ways. She said disbanding the commission could hamper its ability to mount a legal defense.

“We have such short timelines to respond, and I don’t want to handicap our ability to defend ourselves," Szetela said.

"I think that this language wasn’t particularly thought through in terms of the possibility of later litigation,” she said, referring to the amendment that created her group and set the rules for it to disband.

During the meeting, Szetela suggested reducing the commission’s pay while continuing to meet on a severely reduced schedule over the next few years. Fellow commissioner Dustin Witjes asked if it would be feasible for the commission to go on an indefinite recess.

“If something were to happen, it’s us that have to come back. So, in my mind, when it says our obligations are done, I don’t think our obligation ends just arbitrarily. I think our obligations are there for the next, what, nine years now?” Witjes said.

The U.S. census, which the commission's maps are based on, runs every 10 years.

Witjes' idea received push back from Department of State Chief Legal Director Mike Brady. He said, though he’s not the commission’s litigation attorney, he suspects going dormant in the way Witjes proposed would be unconstitutional.

“It’s the particular provision in the constitution that says, ‘When you have no more business, and when you have no more litigation.’ And the threat of litigation, as the Supreme Court has talked about, is not the same thing as litigation,” Brady said.

Other commissioners brought up the potentially bad optics of the group collecting a paycheck years after completing its mapping work.

Ultimately, the commission agreed to move on from the discussion before taking any action.

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