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The Attack on Michigan’s Independent Redistricting Commission

The state’s Republican Party is asking a court to go back to a system that results in egregious political gerrymandering.

In 2018, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative to create an independent commission to draw the state’s congressional and legislative maps. The measure passed convincingly, winning 61 percent of the statewide vote and carrying 66 of 84 counties — both blue and red.

But despite the strong bipartisan support for the new commission, the Michigan Republican Party has asked a federal court to declare the commission unconstitutional. At the heart of the dispute are questions of who gets to serve on the commission and who appoints them.

In the past, the Michigan Legislature was tasked with drawing the state’s districts. In practice, this meant that the map-drawing process often ended up being controlled by a single political party, which was able to abuse the process to manipulate boundaries to hurt political opponents and entrench its own power. That’s how Republicans, who won control of the state legislature in the 2010 Tea Party wave, were able to draw some of the country’s most aggressive gerrymanders in 2011.

The Michigan initiative created a more balanced and impartial map-drawing processing, building on successful redistricting reforms in states like California and Arizona. Instead of a process where one party can hold all the cards, commission membership must be politically balanced — including, for the first time, guaranteed seats for independents and those not affiliated with the two major parties.

And to be approved, a map must win not only support from a majority of the commission but have the support of at least two Democrats, two Republicans, and two members of the commission not affiliated with either of the two major parties. Strong conflict-of-interest rules also ensure that lobbyists, legislative staff, and others with too close a tie to politicians who would benefit from redistricting are kept from serving on the commission. (They, like any Michigan resident, can still submit maps, offer testimony, and otherwise participate in the mapping process.)

These types of requirements are not novel. Conflict-of-interest rules are the norm for all kinds of governmental bodies, including redistricting commissions. And many government bodies, from the California Citizens Redistricting Commission to the Securities and Exchange Commission, require partisan balance in order to prevent domination by one political faction.

Yet the Michigan Republican Party bizarrely contends that requiring the Michigan commission to abide by the same rules is somehow unconstitutional. The party, indeed, goes further, arguing that political parties have the right to directly appoint those who serve on the commission. If the party has its way, this would greatly expand and constitutionalize the role of political parties in redistricting, transforming commissioners from government officials to mere agents of the parties.

The district court rejected the Republican Party’s request to stop Michigan from setting up the commission, and the party has appealed that decision. The meritless nature of the party’s legal claims provides reason to believe the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals will uphold the lower court’s decision, and the Brennan Center has filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the court to do just that.

Michigan voters have spoken emphatically. They want a fairer redistricting process. As we explain in our brief, the Michigan Republican Party’s arguments — and its attempt to return to and make worse the flawed process that produced some of the most gerrymandered maps in the nation — are “an affront to the principles of democracy that the Constitution actually does protect.”