The US state that fought back after Republicans tried to rig its elections

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Rex/Shutterstock

In recent months, Michigan should have been a hotbed for attempts to rig elections, like it was in 2011. That year, the Republican-led legislature distorted the voting maps so that the GOP was able to win nine of Michigan’s 14 congressional seats despite never earning more than 50.5% of the vote statewide.

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A decade later, as the redistricting cycle has come around again, the dynamics are just as toxic. The battleground state broke for Joe Biden by fewer than 155,000 votes, and the Republican-controlled legislature has fought endlessly with the Democratic governor about election “audits”, voter IDs and absentee ballots.

But this cycle, the state’s redistricting commission has pulled off something remarkable. Despite a flurry of legal action and very public disputes between members, it has produced some of the fairest maps in the US. How did it manage it – and will the maps survive?

Neither party was involved in drawing new maps, a process that is open to abuse if politicians are allowed to allocate particular voters to particular districts in order to guarantee a win there. Instead, the responsibility fell to 13 Michiganders – four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents – who were randomly selected by the state.

The Michigan Independent Citizens’ Redistricting Commission (MICRC) includes a foster care worker, a retired banker, an aspiring orthopedic surgeon, a mother of six, a college student and a real estate broker.

MICRC, and the approach it epitomizes, came about thanks to Katie Fahey, a Michigan resident and political novice who posted a message on Facebook two days after the 2016 presidential election. She said she wanted to take on gerrymandering and eventually recruited more than 14,000 volunteers to campaign for an amendment to the state’s constitution. It passed with 61% of the vote and created the commission, one of the most successful ways to unrig the redistricting process so far and a potential model for other states.

Combatting gerrymandering is no small feat. In 35 states, partisan politicians in the legislatures are mostly or fully in charge of redistricting, and of the maps that have been released and evaluated by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project so far, the average grade is a “D”. States led by both Republicans and Democrats – including Maryland, Texas, North Carolina, Oregon, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois – earned the lowest possible grade.

While Republicans haven’t gerrymandered as much as Democrats originally feared – in fact, the number of Democratic-leaning seats could increase by a few this year – both parties have nearly eliminated their competition. Of the 287 completed congressional districts, only 42 (14.6%) are competitive, and 13 states have passed maps with zero competitive districts, according to an analysis from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and RepresentUs.

Part of MICRC’s success is that it’s almost entirely insulated from the legislature. In December of 2019, applications to MICRC were randomly sent to 250,000 citizens. The pool of respondents was then trimmed (at random) to 200, though 60 of the applicants had to self identify as Republicans, 60 as Democrats, and 80 affiliated with neither party. At this point, Democrats and Republicans in the legislature were allowed to strike up to 10 commissioners each, after which the final 13 were then chosen, again at random.

The results were nearly revolutionary. During perhaps one of the most contentious political processes of the decade, MICRC was able to find cross-partisan agreement. Their final congressional map was approved by eight of the commission’s 13 members – two Republicans, two Democrats, and four independents – and will go into effect before the primaries this year.

The congressional map was graded “A” by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

However, the process still has its critics.

Republicans filed a lawsuit claiming that the map arbitrarily “fragments counties, townships, and municipalities” and that it allows too much population deviation between congressional districts.

Meanwhile, good government groups were upset about the committee’s first closed-door meeting, and several media outlets sued to have records from the event released to the public. In late December, MICRC turned over documents showing that it was preparing for litigation about how it split Black voters across different districts, while previously they were geographically more concentrated.

On 5 January, ​​members of the Michigan house of representatives representing Detroit and others challenged the commission’s maps, arguing that they dilute the voting strength of Black voters, particularly in and around Detroit.

However, proving that point in court will be difficult, expensive and time-consuming, says Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

Federal law dictates that minority voters have the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice, but it doesn’t set a specific threshold for what percentage of voters in a district need to be of that minority group.

Li suggested that even if the challenge succeeds, it will probably lead to relatively minor changes around Detroit, as opposed to the commission having to start from scratch.

Still, the pressure of drawing – and then having to defend – the map seems to be wearing on the commissioners. One accused the group’s chair of bullying her and introduced a motion to censure her, and members have even disagreed over whether to produce a “lessons learned” documentary about the process, with two refusing to participate at all.

Since at least early December, commissioners have also voiced skepticism of their general counsel, who resigned abruptly last week.

The episode underscores a potential lesson for states looking to adopt a similar style of commission: non-politicians may be better able to work across party lines but might must be prepared for the rancor, criticism and partisan lawsuits that follow.

If the goal is fairer maps, though, the trade-off may be worth it.

“On the whole, these maps are really good maps,” says Li, “and markedly different than what we’re seeing around the country.”