May 19, 2022

New Districts, Same Players

By Stephen Tuttle | Jan. 22, 2022

We're now well into our constitutionally required decennial exercise in reapportioning legislative and congressional districts. As populations changed, our Founders thought it wise to reevaluate our district's borders every 10 years. It didn't take long for politicians to figure out they could reconfigure district lines in a way that guaranteed them a partisan advantage for at least the next decade. The complaining and lawsuits followed soon thereafter. 

Now, some 21 states have redistricting commissions, 15 of which do not involve legislators or other elected officials and try to organize without partisan advantage. For example, the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission was created in 2010 by a vote of the people and is now part of the state constitution. It is comprised of 13 citizens chosen at random — four Republicans, four Democrats, and five with no partisan affiliation — from a very big list of applicants.

Arkansas was the first to create a non-legislative redistricting commission way back in 1956 through a citizens' initiative. It was followed almost immediately by the first lawsuit directed at such a commission, claiming the entire enterprise was illegal. Court involvement in redistricting is now an unfortunate but regular part of the process as one party or group always believes the process has done them irreparable harm. This year is no different.  

There are already nearly 40 cases challenging newly created district maps in 13 states, and there will surely be more. The complaints generally claim either some form of racial discrimination in violation of the Voting Rights Act or the maps are so blatantly gerrymandered for partisan gain that they are unconstitutional.

There are rules for these things that are supposed to be followed. The Michigan Constitution requires, in order of priority, districts be as close to equal in population as possible and comply with the Voting Rights Act and all federal laws; be geographically contiguous; reflect the state's diverse population and communities of interest (includes populations that share historical or cultural characteristics or economic interests but not political considerations like party affiliation or incumbency); does not favor one political party over the other or favor or disfavor incumbent politicians; reflects consideration of city, township, and county boundaries; and be compact wherever possible. 

Detroit-area Democrats have filed suit against our redistricting commission, claiming legislative and congressional districts eliminate currently existing minority-majority districts and dilute the power of minority voters in violation of Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. The suit here is similar to those brought in Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas — all of which had their new maps drawn either by a Republican-controlled legislature or Republican-controlled commission.

Lawsuits claiming blatant gerrymandering have been filed in Illinois, Maryland, and  Nevada, all of which had their maps drawn by a Democrat-controlled legislature.

The congressional maps drawn by the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature have already been thrown out by the Ohio Supreme Court as being nakedly partisan. It would have strongly favored Republican candidates in 80 percent of the 15 congressional districts despite Republicans generating only about 55 percent of the overall vote in recent elections. 

In New Jersey, where the redistricting commission consists of six Republicans, six Democrats, and one tie-breaking independent, the Republican members have sued the rest of the commission because they did not like the vote cast by the independent this year.

Courts will now be forced to make decisions they'd rather not. Maps will be withdrawn.

Locally, the new maps gave us pretty much the same Congressional District 1, which likely means the same Jack Bergman, our apparent punishment for past sins.

New legislative districts are already crowded with familiar names. Republican state representatives Jack O'Malley and Jon Roth found themselves both in the newly configured 103rd district. Roth will move a half-mile south to run in the new 104th district rather than face O'Malley, whom he considers a mentor. 

O'Malley will be challenged by Democrat Betsy Coffia, who has decided not to seek re-election to the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners, which is expanding from seven members to nine. An O'Malley v. Coffia race will give voters a genuine choice in a district that is now reasonably even between Democrats and Republicans. The district includes significant pieces of both O'Malley's old legislative district and Coffia's old county board district, so both have built-in constituencies. 

Speaking of which, Grand Traverse County Board Chair Rob Hentschel has announced he will not seek reelection but has not ruled out running for state senate in the newly configured District 37, where incumbent Wayne Schmidt is term-limited. Schmidt, a professional politician who likes to use many words to say very little, says he'll now run for the county board.

The political boundaries change but the politicians remain the same.


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