Lawsuit accuses Cass County committee of gerrymandering

Cass County Reapportionment Plan 2021

In a petition filed with the Michigan Court of Appeals (MCOA) on November 5, 2021, Cassopolis Village Council Trustee James Pedersen claims the Cass County Apportionment Committee violated state law when it adopted its most recent map of commissioner districts.

Pedersen says the eight district map divides the City of Dowagiac unnecessarily, combining the city with multiple townships, diluting “the historical voting strength of the city’s minority population,” and skewing county commissioner districts disproportionately in favor of Republican candidates.

On January 18, 2022, attorney Bradford W. Springer of Holland law firm Scholten Fant filed a brief and exhibits on behalf of Pedersen with the court of appeals, requesting oral argument in the case. The Cass County Apportionment Committee, represented by Foster Swift Collins & Smith out of Grand Rapids, has 30 days from the date the brief was filed to respond.

The petitioner’s brief states the apportionment commission considered two eight district apportionment plans when it met on October 8, 2021. One plan was submitted by County Clerk Monica McMichael, while another was proposed by Chair of the Cass County Democratic Party Dr. Naomi Ludman. The commission rejected Ludman’s plan in favor of McMichael’s, 4-1. The lawsuit claims that by adopting McMichael’s plan, the county is in violation of MCL 46.404, which states “no township or part thereof shall be combined with any city or part thereof for a single district, unless such combination is needed to meet the population standard.”

The adopted plan divides Dowagiac and combines it with three surrounding townships, placing the western precinct in the City of Dowagiac with Silver Creek Township and Pokagon Township, and the two eastern precincts in the City of Dowagiac with Wayne Township.

In the petition and again in the brief filed last week, Pedersen alleges members of the commission were selected based on party affiliation, stating “other than Dr. Ludman, all members of the Apportionment Commission are Republicans,” a claim the commission denied in its response to the petition back in November.

“In answer to paragraph 5 of the Petition, Respondent denies the allegations contained in said paragraph to the extent that Petitioner implies commissioners were selected based on party membership,” the commission’s response reads. “The apportionment commission is comprised of three elected officials, without regard to party affiliation, selected by virtue of holding the public offices of Clerk, Treasurer, and Prosecutor, and the party chair of each of the two political parties which received the most votes in the most recent secretary of state election.”

The rejected plan would have kept the City of Dowagiac intact, and Pedersen argues, “demonstrates that dividing the City of Dowagiac is not necessary to meet the population standard because the Ludman plan produces a more equal and lower population deviation than the adopted plan.”

Ludan’s plan would have left the City of Dowagiac intact in District 1.

The Ludman plan proposed splitting Porter and Ontwa Townships to meet population requirements for district size, and combines the City of Dowagiac with a small portion of LaGrange Township to meet the population requirements for district size. The plan also combined small portions of Silver Creek Township and Pokagon Township in order to keep the city united in the same district as it was established in 2013. This was necessary, according to Pederson, because there are several non-contiguous island parcels of city land dotted along the western edge, southeastern edge, and eastern edge that are separated from the rest of the Dowagiac as a result of how it has grown geographically over the years.

The lawsuit argues the adopted plan “destroys the competitive nature of the City of Dowagiac by diluting its voters — by dividing them and combining them with the surrounding whiter, more Republican districts.”

Dowagiac has a total population of 5,721, and a 34.2 percent minority population (African American, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific, and Native American). The city’s current voting age population is 28.7 percent minority (including 15.9 percent African American and 6.2 percent Native American), a large majority of whom live in the city’s Ward 1 precinct. Splitting the city and combining its Ward 1 precinct with Silver Creek Township and Pokagon Township, as called for in the adopted plan, creates a district that is 77.7 percent white and 60.43 percent Republican, diluting the minority vote in Ward 1, which historically votes Democratic. The same is true for the City’s Ward 2 and Ward 3, which, under the current plan, are combined with Wayne Township, another largely white and Republican area.

The lawsuit claims Ludman’s plan would have left an approximately 49.17 percent to 48.5 percent Democratic to Republican split in that district, stating “The City of Dowagiac — if not divided — is virtually the only area that is competitive between Republicans and Democrats in the entire county.”

The Michigan Court of Appeals has yet to make a ruling in this matter.

Alek Haak-Frost is executive editor of Watershed Voice.

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