LANSING, Mich. (AP) — At least 11 of Michigan's 110 House districts would be redrawn for the 2020 election under a proposed legal settlement announced Friday by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat who said the deal would fix "egregious" examples of partisan gerrymandering.
As part of her agreement with Democrats who sued, congressional and state Senate seats would stay intact. The Republican-led Legislature, which in 2011 drew the maps that are in question, would put in place new lines for 11 state House districts — subject to court approval. The number of newly cast seats would be higher, though, because of the impact on adjacent districts.
Benson, the state's top election official who became the named defendant in the lawsuit upon taking office this month, said there is "significant evidence" that the maps are unconstitutional. The proposed consent decree, she said, is significantly narrower than what could result from a trial the state would likely lose — the possibility of a court-ordered redrawing of all three maps, resulting in "political upheaval."
"I believe today's settlement proposal strikes a balance between recognizing the unconstitutionality of the 2011 districting maps while also reaching a remedy that is limited in scope and impact, given the length of time that these districts have been in place," she said.
Republicans, who have criticized Benson since she announced last week her intention to settle , said Friday that the agreement is an attempt by Benson and Democrats to "steal" the House in 2020. The GOP has a 58-52 edge now. Former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, had defended the maps.
Later Friday, Michigan Republicans involved in the suit asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the entire proceeding until the high court rules on redistricting suits from North Carolina and Maryland. Justices will hear arguments on those cases in March.
"The Democrats know it will be nearly impossible to redraw these eleven districts without effecting countless others causing electoral chaos," said state GOP spokesman Tony Zammit. "Worse yet, outdated 10-year-old data will be utilized to draw the new lines which will not accurately reflect the demographics of our state."
Benson said she could not in "good conscience" spend public money to defend unconstitutional gerrymandering at a trial. She said it does not matter to her which party drew the districts, and her decision has set the expectation that she will be a fair, independent secretary of state.
The suit, brought in 2017 by the League of Women Voters and 11 Democrats who say the GOP-drawn maps unconstitutionally marginalize Democratic voters, initially challenged all 14 congressional districts, 110 House districts and 38 Senate districts — before the plaintiffs later narrowed the list to 34. Eleven of the 15 House districts in question would be impacted. Six are held by Republicans, five by Democrats.
They are in the Detroit suburbs, Grand Rapids and areas in or near Ann Arbor, Battle Creek, Flint, Kalamazoo, Muskegon and Saginaw. Few are considered marginal, or swing, districts — though that could change depending on the effect on bordering seats.
Asked if more than 11 seats would have to be redrawn given the effect on neighboring districts, Benson said: "That's up to the Legislature." Two House members, including now-Republican Speaker Lee Chatfield, were allowed to intervene in the case last month. A spokesman said Chatfield had not yet had a chance to review the proposed deal.
House Minority Leader Christine Greig said Democrats are ready to work with Republicans to ensure the new districts "are fair and constitutional."
The suit only pertains to 2020. Voters in November approved a constitutional amendment creating an independent commission to handle the typically once-a-decade redistricting process after the 2020 census.
An Associated Press statistical analysis of the 2016 election results found that Michigan's state House districts had one of the largest Republican tilts in the nation. The AP used an "efficiency gap" analysis to measure potential gerrymandering — the same statistical tool later cited in the suit that alleges Michigan's legislative districts are unconstitutional.
A separate analysis conducted for the AP by the Princeton University Gerrymandering Project found that the extreme Republican advantages in some states were unlikely to be a fluke. The Princeton analysis found that the Republican edge in Michigan's House districts had only a 1-in-16,000 probability of occurring by chance.