Michigan Legislative Maps May Violate Voting Rights Act, Says Three-Judge Panel
The Ballenger Report told you so two months ago. Now it’s happened.
Back in June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that called into question whether the current maps drawn up for the state Senate and House of Representatives by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) violate federal law.
Do they trample on the federal Voting Rights Act? Very possibly, and if so the MICRC may have to go back to work and draft new district lines for at least a portion of the maps in time for the 2024 election.
That’s because, Tuesday of this week, a federal lawsuit arguing that Michigan’s new state legislative districts illegally disenfranchise Black voters must proceed to a “trial” after a court ruling issued by a three-judge panel. The legal challenge by a group of metro Detroit residents followed a similar one rejected by the Michigan Supreme Court.
U.S. Circuit Court Judge Raymond Kethledge wrote the order on behalf of the panel that will allow some of the challenges to the new district lines to proceed to trial while giving others a pass for now.
What would this kind of trial be like? Probably Kethledge will soon set a briefing schedule in which both the plaintiffs and defendants would give depositions to the judges, after which a more formal hearing would be held after which the troika of black robes would issue a decision on what if anything should be done. It may be significant that the judges have already dismissed a motion by the defense for summary judgment, meaning they want to consider the case that the Michigan Supreme Court, in a partisan 4-3 vote, rejected without even looking at it.
At issue in the trial will be “whether the Commission went too far in lowering black voter percentages in Detroit-area districts,” Kethledge wrote. The three-judge panel are all technically appointees of former President George W. Bush, a Republican, although one of the judges, Janet Neff, is a Democrat named as part of a political deal between the White House and the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate.
The state legislative maps adopted by the MICRC ran parts of the city of Detroit — a majority-Black city — into surrounding suburban communities, like spokes on a wheel. The maps have NO Congressional majority-minority districts (ZERO) in a state that is roughly 15% African-American. There are NO state Senate majority-minority districts (ZERO) and only six state House majority-minority districts. Those maps stand in contrast to the 2011 redistricting plans adopted by the Legislature, which contained TWO majority-minority Congressional districts, FIVE state Senate majority-minority districts and 12 state House majority-minority districts. The maps in effect between 2002 and 2012 were similarly constructed.
But Democrats are happy with the maps — it helped them secure control of both chambers of the state Legislature for the first time in 40 years.
Before the MICRC approved the maps, civil rights activists and Detroit lawmakers had raised concerns that the new lines violated federal voting rights requirements to provide voters belonging to protected racial minorities a fair chance to nominate and elect one of their own.
During the mapping process, the commission’s legal counsel and alleged “experts” on voting rights said that districts drawn by Republicans a decade ago (and earlier) concentrated Black voters in Detroit in a handful of districts, limiting their electoral influence. The commission’s consultants instructed the novice mappers to “fix” maps they said had “packed” minority voters.
The new district lines that were then drawn by the MICRC were supposed to end gerrymandering in Michigan, according to Voters Not Politicians (VNP), the election reform activists who petitioned for a statewide ballot proposal to amend the state’s constitution in 2018. VNP claimed the creation of a new independent commission to draw new maps every 10 years would terminate the practice of drawing voting districts to benefit one political party (in this case, the Republicans).
However, the results of the August 8 primary prompted renewed concerns that the new district lines pose a threat to Black representation. In other words, the new maps may turn out to be gerrymandering simply by different means, trampling on African-Americans and ignoring the controversial “communities of interest” criterion in order to improve Democrats’ chances of winning. If so, mission accomplished.
Kethledge cited four state Senate districts and five state House districts in particular:
- Senate District 1 currently represented by state Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor
- Senate District 3 currently represented by state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit
- Senate District 6 currently represented by state Sen. Mary Cavanagh, D-Redford Township
- Senate District 8 currently represented by state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak
- House District 1 currently represented by state Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit
- House District 7 currently represented by state Rep. Helena Scott, D-Detroit
- House District 10 currently represented by state Rep. Joe Tate, D-Detroit
- House District 12 currently represented by state Rep. Kimberly Edwards, D-Eastpointe
- House District 14 currently represented by state Rep. Donavan McKinney, D-Detroit
Two of the senators are white (in the 6th and 8th districts), one is Asian-American (in the 3rd), and one Black (the 1st). All of the representatives are Black.
However, the MICRC, or whichever other entity might draw any new maps, may find that it’s impossible to confine their work to just those nine districts. Other lines may be affected in adjacent districts, although it’s likely any changes would be confined to Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties.
All this has unfolded because, back in June, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a close 5-4 vote, unexpectedly held that the Alabama Congressional plan that was in place for the 2022 election violated Section 2 of the federal VRA. The Supremes ruled that Alabama must adopt a plan for 2024 that contains two districts with a majority of racial minorities instead of just one. Right now, 27% of Alabama’s population is African-American, yet only one of its seven CDs (about 14%) is majority-minority.
The Court also held that Louisiana’s Congressional district map must similarly be revised to create two majority-minority districts instead of one. About one-third of Louisiana’s population is Black, but a disproportionate number (five) of its six CDs have a non-Black majority.
The verdict was viewed as a cause for celebration by most Democratic, liberal and progressive observers and activists around the country. In Michigan, however, the result could well produce an outcome they won’t like.
Naturally, all this appears to be good news for each of the 13 Redistricting Commissioners — it would seem to justify that their approximately $55,700 annualized salary (about 35% of the Governor’s pay) will continue on indefinitely. That’s because the MICRC is likely to be the mechanism to adopt any remedial plan resulting from a court order, unless the judges opt to appoint a special master as happened in 1991.