A lawsuit brought by Black Democrats who partnered with Republican attorneys has undone Michigan’s first independently drawn legislative maps, in a development some other Democrats have labeled a GOP “power grab”.
Republicans for decades controlled all or part of the state legislature, and developed districts that a judge in 2019 characterized as a “gerrymander of historical proportions”. Democrats in 2022 took control of the state government for the first time in over 40 years after a nonpartisan independent redistricting commission implemented more balanced maps.
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But a Republican-majority panel of federal district court judges appointed by a Republican circuit court judge ruled in early January that the maps diluted Black voting power and were drawn based on race, thus splitting communities that would otherwise vote in a bloc.
Several Michigan Democrats who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize members of their party expressed dismay because a Republican judiciary now controls the redrawing process, and they fear the new maps will be more favorable to the GOP.
Constituents in Detroit and elsewhere in the state will suffer if the legislature is turned back over to Republicans, some Democrats said. Michigan now has its first Black speaker of the house and more Black committee chairs than it has ever had, the maps’ supporters noted, and the speaker’s district is one of those included in the lawsuit.
But former Michigan state representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, one of the lead plaintiffs along with a group of Black voters, told the Guardian her colleagues’ arguments were “ludicrous”. The new maps carved up Detroit into more districts than before, and that destroyed Detroit’s voting bloc, she added.
The lawsuit encompasses 13 senate and house districts in and around Detroit, a city that is around 85% Black. Of those, eight districts are currently represented by Black representatives or senators.
“We don’t want a majority on the backs of Black people who have no voice in selecting their own representation,” she said. “If the party is suggesting that the only way they can have a majority is by selling Black people up the river, then hell no. It’s not fair.”
Typically, Republicans in other states argue on the opposite side of the Voting Rights Act and 14th amendment violations, which Democrats say is evidence the party is disingenuous and capitalizing on Democratic divisions to try to destroy the maps.
Michigan Democratic party chair Lavora Barnes did not respond to specific questions from the Guardian, but in a statement said she is “confident that Democrats will be able to hold the majority in the House and maintain our Democratic trifecta that has continually delivered for Michiganders”.
Previously, the party in charge of the legislature drew the maps every 10 years. That changed with the 2018 passage of a citizen initiative for an independent nonpartisan redistricting commission. The commission’s new lines went into effect this year, giving Democrats a much fairer shot at control.
Michigan was one of a handful of swing states to come under full Democratic control in 2022 as the undoing of Roe V Wade galvanized voters, but their majority in both chambers is razor thin. The state’s congressional districts are not affected by the lawsuit, though a second suit is possible.
Among the plaintiff’s lead attorneys is John Bursch, a former state solicitor general under GOP former attorney general Bill Schuette who has represented conservatives in anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion causes.
In what observers say is an unprecedented move, the federal court appointed a special master to draw new maps at the same time as the commission, reasoning that the commission was beset by infighting and incapable of redrawing legislative lines in time for the 2024 elections.
With the close proximity of the 2024 primaries, the moves make sense, even if it is unprecedented, said Josh Douglas, an election law and voting rights professor at the University of Kentucky.
“It just shows that courts sometimes need to be creative as an election draws nearer,” he said.
The court ruled the maps violated the US constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act.
The latter stems from the diminished number of majority-Black districts the commission drew because it connected the city to suburbs, which diluted the voting strength of Black voters. The districts should be at least 50-55% minority, observers say, and are currently about 35-40% minority.
More importantly, the court ruled the maps violated the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause, which prohibits the use of race as the primary consideration in drawing lines. The process of drawing lines can frequently be drawn based on race, and Black Democrats in other states have have previously partnered with white Republicans.
Bill Ballenger, a conservative-leaning Michigan political analyst, said the maps were “clearly” flawed, and noted the Democratic judge on the panel, Janet Neff, agreed with the GOP members. He scoffed at the notion of a “power grab”.
“Of course they are saying all this, but the commission has given Republicans a lot of ammunition,” he said.
The ruling was highly critical of the commission, and though Neff agreed with the majority decision, she questioned the need for a “harsh” tone in the panels’ decision. State Democrats who spoke to the Guardian said they suspected it was meant to undermine the commission’s credibility, but the commission has been beset by partisan infighting.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys seized on that this week as the court continues to work out the redraw’s specifics: “The commission and its members appear more intent on cannibalizing each other than functioning as a cohesive group to draw a set of acceptable maps.”
Ultimately, the issue boils down to having an effective caucus of Detroit senators and representatives, Gay-Dagnogo said. She pointed to the Detroit caucus’s success in negotiating on behalf of residents over auto insurance reform and state takeover of the city’s public school system. Even well-intentioned legislators sometimes propose policies that are bad for Detroiters, she added.
“That’s the importance of having representation from your community, being well versed in those issues, and being able to get in these roles to advocate for your community,” Gay-Dagnogo said.