Things seemed to be going so well. Now, suddenly, they aren’t.
New Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has had the news media eating out of the palm of her rhetorical hand with “kumbaya” calls for bipartisan cooperation between the executive branch’s constitutional officers, all Democrats, and majority Republicans in the state Senate and House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, however, it’s been revealed that Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, three weeks on the job, has been negotiating an agreement among an all-Democrat cast of political actors to settle a federal lawsuit alleging that Michigan’s Congressional and legislative district maps have been gerrymandered since 2011. No court has ever found that to be true.
Any proposed settlement brokered by Benson, former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer (one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit), and the pro-Democratic League of Women Voters would require approval by a three-judge federal panel overseeing the case. Brewer claims that the Michigan GOP’s charges that the settlement has been negotiated “in secret” is mistaken and that, in any event, “any settlement is going to have to be approved by the court.” What Brewer doesn’t mention is that at least two of the three judges are Democratic appointees who would almost certainly side with the Benson & Co. side of any argument.
Under the revised settlement proposal put forth by Benson, new maps would have to be drawn for next year’s election for nine U.S. House seats, 10 seats in the state Senate, and 15 in the state House. The state Senate contests would be “special” because senators were elected to what were thought to be four-year terms last November. All the redrawn districts would be in play only in 2020, after which time new districts would again be drawn by an independent citizens’ commission created by a constitutional amendment approved by voters in the same general election. These new maps would then go into effect for 2022 and beyond.
It’s a hot mess. Who would draw the maps? Nobody knows. Speculation abounds. Democratic lawmakers might be imperiled as much as Republicans. For the first time under the 1963 Constitution, some senators would be running for terms of only two years in districts that will be altered two years later, when the solons must run again.
Bottom line, though, is that Benson and Brewer are striving to flip enough legislative seats to Democrats next year to put their party in control of all of state government by January of 2021.
Benson and lawyers for the League filed motions last week in U.S. District Court in Detroit to stay a trial in the case that is scheduled for Feb. 5, in part because the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered arguments on two alleged gerrymandering cases in Maryland and North Carolina, a decision on which might influence the Michigan situation. Instead, Benson argues that, if the court would allow her, she and her cohorts are “likely” to reach a settlement in the Michigan case.
Attorneys for Republican Congressional and legislative defendants have also intervened in the case, but not because they are part of any negotiations aimed at a “settlement,” from which they have been excluded. Rather, the GOP cites only the U.S. Supreme Court litigation involving the two other states.
All this puts a damper on prospects for “building bridges” between Whitmer and majority Republicans in the Legislature. In fact, there is every reason to believe Whitmer privately applauds Benson’s moves, especially since the SoS is sitting on another hot potato — whether a soft-money 527 non-profit called Build a Better Michigan (BBM) broke Michigan campaign finance law last summer by illegally engaging in “express advocacy” advertisements that coordinated with the Whitmer for Governor campaign. Former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, just before leaving office late last year, ruled that BBM had indeed violated Michigan’s issue advocacy rules. Such a violation could result in massive fines for BBM, Whitmer’s campaign, and Whitmer personally. But Benson has so far said only that she does not have a “timeline” for making a decision on the case and has asked for more “documentation” that she can “review.”
And then there is the matter of a controversial new law changing the rules on how organizations must gather petition signatures for proposed constitutional amendments and initiatives. The bill was rushed through the state House and Senate with heavy Republican support (and Democratic opposition) during the Legislature’s 2018 lame duck session and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder shortly before he left office. Benson says she will rely on another gambit employed by Whitmer on the Line 5 Straits of Mackinac laws also enacted in lame duck — she will ask Attorney General Dana Nessel, a sister Democrat elected the same day as Benson, for an opinion on the petition law’s constitutionality. Benson insists she “doesn’t think (her) personal view matters in this case,” but it’s clear she hopes Nessel will cooperate with an opinion negating the new law.
All this is occurring against the backdrop of H.R. 1, a 571-page bill introduced by majority Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives aimed at centralizing elections in all 50 states in the federal Department of Justice (DOJ). Among its provisions:
* Implement mandatory voter registration. Anyone on a government list — such as welfare benefits or rent subsidies — must be automatically registered to vote.
* Require states to allow felons to vote.
* Require states to have extended early voting periods.
* Set up government control over political speech.
* Mandate same-day voter registration.
* Deny states the ability to prevent people from voting twice in the same election.
* Criminalize protected political speech.
* Require Federal DOJ “preclearance.” Whenever a state wants to make an election law change, no matter how small, it must secure approval from Washington, D.C., DOJ bureaucrats. Move a polling place, change a precinct line, or move voting from the school gym to the school library? DOJ must approve.
It would seem that Benson, a former law school dean, sees herself as the DOJ of Michigan.