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Lawsuit challenges Michigan district lines

Lawsuit challenges Michigan district lines
© Greg Nash

The next front in the war against partisan gerrymandering is in Michigan, where the League of Women Voters has filed a lawsuit challenging what it calls improperly partisan legislative and congressional district maps.

The suit, filed Friday on behalf of eleven Democratic voters, says the district lines violate the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of Michigan residents by diluting the influence of their votes, a process called "cracking and packing," splitting some Democratic constituencies among several Republican-leaning districts and packing others together in heavily-Democratic seats.

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"Michigan's state House, Senate and congressional districts are among the worst in the nation when it comes to partisan gerrymandering, and today's lawsuit aims to fix the problem and restore voters' rights to choose who best represents them," said Judy Karandjeff, president of the state League of Women Voters.

Michigan's current district lines were drawn in 2011 by the Republican-dominated state legislature, with help from GOP operatives. Under these lines, Republicans have won about half the statewide vote — but they control a disproportionate share of the seats in both Congress and the state legislature.

In 2016, Republicans won 50.5 percent of the statewide vote in House races, but they control 9 of Michigan's 14 seats in Congress.

"The gerrymander worked," the lawsuit says. "Democrats' voting strength was diluted and their representational rights were burdened because of their party affiliation."

The suit contends that one state House district's lines were so brazenly drawn that the result mirrors an oddly-drawn Massachusetts district in 1812, one that gave birth to the term "gerrymander."

The Michigan suit is the latest effort by Democrats and good-government groups to challenge overtly partisan map-making. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering Gill v. Whitford, a case argued in October that challenged Wisconsin's 2011 maps. Another case on appeal to the high court, Benisek v. Lamone, challenges the validity of a Democratic-led gerrymander in Maryland.

Three cases challenging North Carolina's district maps are working their way through federal courts. Three more scrutinizing Pennsylvania maps are pending in state and federal court.

Other cases have challenged maps in North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia, alleging those boundaries were drawn with improper consideration of race as a factor.

In Michigan, voters are likely to have the opportunity to change the way the state draws its maps the next time the decennial census and reapportionment process takes place.

Supporters of a ballot initiative that would hand redistricting responsibilities to an independent commission turned in more than 425,000 signatures to qualify for the 2018 ballot, far more than the 315,000 valid signatures they would need to gain access.

State Democrats support the measure, while Republicans are opposed.