Did Michigan’s assault on local democracy violate Voting Rights Act?

A Michigan law passed in 2013 set the stage for the Flint water crisis and deeply undermined local democracy in the state. Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to weigh in on whether it discriminates against racial minorities in violation of the Voting Rights Act. 

In 2011, Michigan’s Republican legislature passed a law that empowered the governor to appoint “emergency managers” to take over all aspects of of any local government in financial distress. The law had been developed by a Koch-funded think tank with ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the secretive conservative lobbying group, as a way to save money for state taxpayers. 

In the ensuing years, Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, used the law to appoint emergency mangers in several heavily minority cities, including Detroit. 

But in 2012, Michigan voters decisively repealed the law by ballot initiative. So Snyder and the legislature came back the following year and passed a new emergency manager law, this time adding an amendment that barred voters from repealing it. 

The heavily African-American city of Flint had four different emergency managers between 2013 and 2015, during which time the decision was made to switch the city’s water supply to the Flint River as a cost-saving move. The result: Lead contamination which was linked to a spike in Legionnaire’s Disease, sickening 87 people and killed ten. “No citizen of this great state should endure this kind of catastrophe,” Snyder said in an abject mea culpa last year. 

Even before the Flint fiasco, advocates for minorities had filed suit against the emergency manager law on behalf of a group of local elected officials and others. They argued, among other claims, that in taking away effective control from majority-black cities, the law violates the Voting Rights Act’s ban on racial discrimination in voting. 

A federal judge rejected some of the other claims but ruled that the racial discrimination claim could go forward. Last week, the lawyers behind the suit formally asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.  

Whatever the result of the lawsuit, Michigan’s emergency manager law and its consequences offer a lesson in why it’s important that people be allowed to govern themselves. As I wrote in The Great Suppression, policy disasters like Flint are likely to happen when you get rid of democracy and replace it with a system in which public officials are accountable not to local voters, but to state officials with no stake in the community. 

“State officials, in fact, don’t want appointed managers to be responsive to local constituents,” Richard Schragger, a University of Virginia law professor and an expert on local government, has written. “That is the whole point of appointing a manager—to prevent him or her from responding too readily to the costly demands of city constituents. When a manager has been appointed to govern a city, the state is functionally declaring that the local political process has broken down and cannot be trusted.”

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