New Emails Show Michigan Republicans Plotting to Gerrymander Maps

A court filing cites emails in which Michigan Republicans openly celebrate their gerrymandering successes.

WASHINGTON — Newly disclosed emails show Michigan Republicans angling to give their party a dominant position through gerrymandered maps and celebrating the plight of their Democratic rivals.

Republicans in the state have denied that they sought partisan gain when they drew new legislative boundaries in 2011. But a federal lawsuit, which argues the maps are unconstitutional, has unearthed records showing Republicans intent on drawing boundaries that would help their party.

The emails, disclosed in a filing on Monday, boast of concentrating “Dem garbage” into four of the five southeast Michigan districts that Democrats now control, and of packing African-Americans into a metropolitan Detroit House district. One email likened a fingerlike extension they created in one Democratic district map to an obscene gesture toward its congressman, Representative Sander M. Levin.

“Perfect. It’s giving the finger to Sandy Levin,” the author of the message wrote. “I love it.”

Excerpts from the emails were filed in United States District Court in Detroit this week as part of a battle between the plaintiffs and the defendant — formally, Michigan’s secretary of state — over how much evidence the sides must disclose before a trial begins. The emails were first reported byBridge Magazine, run by the Center for Michigan, a public policy think tank.

Michigan is frequently a battleground state in statewide and national elections, divided evenly between the two major parties. But the Republican Legislature controlled redistricting after population data from the 2010 census became available, and the 14-member House delegation is split lopsidedly between nine Republican seats and five Democratic ones.

Democrats charged at the time that the map was both a partisan and racial gerrymander. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, led by the League of Women Voters of Michigan, claim Republicans violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by minimizing Democratic representation for partisan gain.

A party spokeswoman for Michigan Republicans in December dismissed the merit of the lawsuit and said gerrymandering was against the law.

But the email excerpts disclose that Republican drafters wanted to create a map that would give the party 10 House seats and Democrats only four. That would have been too blatant, wrote Robert LaBrant, a Republican strategist, longtime executive at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and a recognized expert at drawing political maps.

“We needed for legal and PR purposes a good looking map that did not look like an obvious gerrymander,” Mr. LaBrant wrote in May 2011 to Jeff Timmer, a consultant to the drafting process. Contacted by telephone, both men declined to comment because they are likely witnesses in the lawsuit.

A Republican Party spokeswoman did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

The Detroit News, citing another filing in the lawsuit, reported last week that Mr. LaBrant also pledged that month to give one Republican congressman at the time, Dave Camp, “whatever Dave wants in his district.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time providing options to ensure we have a solid 9-5 delegation in 2012 and beyond,” the email stated.

In another exchange, an aide to former Republican Representative Thaddeus G. McCotter proposed swapping equal numbers of residents in two suburban Detroit districts to meet “the obvious objective — putting dems in a dem district and reps in a GOP district.”

“It will help increase the black population in the black districts because the former is 17% black while the latter is only 6% black,” he wrote.

That same staff member asked Mr. Timmer to produce population and voting records for one hypothetical map, then exulted: “In a glorious way that makes it easier to cram ALL of the Dem garbage in Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland and Macomb counties into only four districts. Is there anyone on our side who doesn’t recognize that dynamic?”

Mr. Levin said on Wednesday that Republicans had redrawn his district in 2011 to include the residence of another Democratic congressman, Gary Peters, so that the two men would have to run against each other. Mr. Peters is now the state’s junior senator.

“They did everything they could to concentrate Democrats, to load these districts,” he said.

The newly unearthed emails could lend momentum to a proposed constitutional amendment to end gerrymandering, which is set to be on the ballot in Michigan in November. The amendment is written and promoted by a nonpartisan group called Voters Not Politicians.

The emails recall similar Republican redistricting efforts in 2016 in North Carolina, in which a leader of the drafting process said he had created 10 Republican House seats and three Democratic ones “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

“We’re seeing more and more of these cases in which the intent to gerrymander is so blatant and the ugliness of the process is becoming transparent to the courts and the general public,” Richard H. Pildes, an election-law scholar at the New York University School of Law, said in an interview. “That certainly can’t make the courts comfortable.”

The Supreme Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymanders this spring, and many experts say they believe Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement announcement last month have lowered the odds that the court will outlaw the practice.

“It looks like naked partisanship, and that might be permissible,” said Barry Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “If it’s merely one party trying to harm the fortunes of the other, the court thus far has given that the green light, and it might continue to.”

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