By Susan J. Demas and John Bebow
Redistricting is “the most partisan thing the Legislature does,” said former Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow (R-Port Huron), one of the architects of the 2001 maps. “You have to understand the process. And if you don’t like it, get the majority.”
A decade earlier, in 1981, DeGrow was on the receiving end of controversial redistricting plans drawn by Democrats then in control in Lansing. “Spare me the righteous crying,” he said. “I’ve been on the other side. … It isn’t personal; it’s just business.”
To understand the 2011 map drawing, it helps to understand Michigan’s past political cartography.
Many districts in the United States used to be mal-apportioned – districts weren’t anywhere close to having the same population base, said LaBrant, who has helped advise and finance GOP redistricting efforts for four decades. Then the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in the 1960s and helped put a stop to some gerrymandering. In Michigan, Senate boundaries were frozen from 1925 to 1952.
“So it used to be a lot worse,” LaBrant said. “You don’t have the egregious, goofy-looking districts from the last decade – what I call modern works of art. It was a very different time.”
Change also came with the 1963 Michigan Constitution, which established an eight-member redistricting committee evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Not surprisingly, the committee ended up deadlocking during the 1971 and 1981 battles and the courts had to step in.
In the ‘70s, Democrats held a majority on the Supreme Court, so their redistricting proposal was adopted. In the 1980s, a three-judge panel appointed Bernie Apol, the retired state director of elections, to devise a plan resulting in the state’s “Apol standards.” Apol’s rules direct the state to create state legislative districts that:
- Contain roughly equal populations
- Feature contiguous and compact boundaries
- Maintain respect for municipal and county boundaries to the extent possible
- Assure representation for minority groups
In 1991 and 2001, legislative leaders and the governor ran the process, with input from party leaders and attorneys. Their plans can be (and inevitably have been) challenged in state and federal court. To better guide the process, lawmakers codified the Apol standards in 1999.
When the Apol standards were created, some redistricting veterans, including Michigan Supreme Court Justice Charles Levin, thought there would be only one way to draw a map. Never underestimate the ingenuity of lawmakers, however — especially when self-preservation is involved. In reality, there are usually about a half-dozen maps or so that would comply with the standards, said Porn.
That comes with its own set of complications, however, as Robinson, the MCFN director points out. “If you nudge the lines this way and that way, you set off a whole string of dominos impacting other seats,” he said.
Republicans, by and large, point to the Apol standards as ensuring a fair process. “Frankly, there’s not a lot of room for politics when you’re complying with them,” said current Senate Redistricting Committee Chair Joe Hune (R-Hamburg).
Democrats like state party Chairman Mark Brewer, would like to see some modifications to ensure more fairness in districts. And Democrats argue that their Republican peers haven’t necessarily followed the Apol standards. In 2001, Democrats claimed their maps followed the standards better as theirs broke up fewer counties. But the GOP had the votes to use their own maps.
This year, redistricting could prove to be a sort of Wild West scenario. Eight years ago, in a redistricting challenge known as LeRoux v. Secretary of State, the state Supreme Court ruled the Apol criteria were irrelevant for congressional districts and said the Legislature was not bound to follow Apol guidelines as written into state law. The court ruled that lawmakers could “repeal, amend, or ignore” the standards “as it pleased.”