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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.”