Thursday, January 25, 2018

What the latest federal court rulings on gerrymandering mean for Michigan

Posted By on Thu, Jan 25, 2018 at 9:56 AM

  • Map of the Michigan House's gerrymandered districts in Southeastern Michigan

Federal courts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania ruled in recent weeks that the GOP in each state illegally drew Congressional maps and districts along partisan and/or racial lines.

The two courts ordered the respective state's lawmakers to redraw the lines in a way that's fair before the next election.
In Michigan, state Democrats and the League of Women Voters filed a similar lawsuit in federal court in December alleging that severe partisan gerrymandering in the state violates federal constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection under the law.

So what do the latest rulings mean for Michigan?

On one level, not much, because the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay in North Carolina, and something similar is likely to happen in Pennsylvania. A similar case out of Wisconsin where the GOP allegedly gerrymandered districts in its favor, and a case out of Maryland in which Democrats are alleged to have illegally gerrymandered districts in its favor are also pending before the Supreme Court.
Thus signs point to the nation's high court taking up the cases at some point this year. Justices seem split on the issue, with less conservative justices indicating they don't feel the courts should intervene, while liberal justices see the need for court intervention. The swing vote is Justice John Roberts.

But that could mean little in Michigan if a ballot initiative to amend the state's constitution to end gerrymandering is approved. A non-partisan group, Voters Not Politicians, is proposing the establishment of an independent redistricting commission to draw the lines fairly for the GOP and Democrats.

Under its proposal, current and former politicians, lobbyists, political consultants, major campaign donors, and other political insiders would be ineligible to serve on the commission.

Voters Not Politicians spokesperson Elizabeth Battiste says court rulings address the symptoms, but not the cause of gerrymandering.
"States that are sending their maps to the courts all have one thing in common— they weren't drawn by independent commissions. Even if the courts make changes, they are only addressing the outcome and not the process," she tells Metro Times. "The problem can only be fixed when the power is put back in the hands of the voters, not the political elites who make decisions behind closed doors and have a conflict of interest."

Why is gerrymandering a problem? Voters don't get the representation for which they voted. Evidence shows that when Democrats are in power, they'll rig the districts, and the GOP will do the same it holds power. Beyond that, extreme candidates from both parties are insulated from voter anger. Consider just how nonsensical state-level politics is in Michigan.
• In the 2014 and 2016 elections, Michigan Democrats in state house races received nearly the same or more total votes than Republicans, yet Republicans hold a 63-47 majority. Similar scenarios are playing out in the senate and congressional districts.

• The state's lawmakers continue to pass highly unpopular laws and thwart popular proposals, like increasing the minimum wage, yet voters aren't able to kick them out of office.

• Sen. Virgil Smith, a Democrat representing Detroit, was re-elected while facing felony charges for shooting at his wife, and didn't let go of his seat until last year when he went to jail for 10 months.

• In Midland, Gary Glenn — a card-carrying member of the American Family Association of Michigan, a conservative religious organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a hate group — wins his seat with ease.

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