Redistricting panel kicks off public hearings, despite questions looming around census data

Michigan Independent Citizens Redisctricting Commission press conference on May 10, 2021.

By Allison Donahue, Michigan Advance

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) in charge of drawing the state’s new U.S. House and state House and Senate district lines for the 2022 elections is gearing up to kick off its series of 16 public hearings across the state which begins today, Tuesday, May 11. 

“This is an entirely new process for the state of Michigan; it’s a very exciting time,” said Commissioner Rebecca Szetela, an independent on the panel. “Instead of having legislators drawing maps, the MICRC empowers the citizens to provide input as to where they think district lines should be drawn to best represent their interests, rather than having politicians draw lines that represent the politicians.”

Voters in 2018 approved a constitutional amendment establishing the MICRC, which is made up of a panel of 13 Michigan residents — four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents.

The commission has had a less than ideal start since the U.S. Census Bureau pushed back its plan to deliver redistricting data to the states from March 31 to Sept. 30, creating a conflict for the MICRC’s deadline. 

The MICRC is required to meet a deadline of Nov. 1 to have its plans for the new maps finalized and by Sept. 17, or 45 days before the maps are finalized, for a public comment period.

This deadline is about two weeks before the state is expected to receive the Census data. 

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and the MICRC jointly filed a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court last month aimed at getting 72 days of relief for the redistricting deadlines. 

Commission Director Suann Courtright Hammersmith said the Supreme Court has not yet responded to the lawsuit. 

But the delay in census data shouldn’t be an issue for these 16 upcoming meetings, Hammersmith said, because this initial step is all about listening to the public prior to drawing their maps. 

“The purpose of the public hearings is to listen to the people who have comments about what their communities of interest are and where they would like the lines to be drawn for their district. In fact, the commission cannot draw a single line until at least 10 public hearings take place,” Hammersmith said. 

The MICRC does have a set of criteria they must follow for map-drawing laid out in the state Constitution. 

The commission is required to have an equal population in compliance with the Voting Rights Act, must have the districts be geographically contiguous, must consider communities of interest, must reflect consideration of city, county and township boundaries and the districts must be “reasonably compact.”

Additionally, the commission cannot give a disproportionate advantage to any political party or favor or disfavor any incumbent elected official or any candidates.

An independent commission seems to be unique against a backdrop of hyperpartisanship in both Michigan and nationally, but Szetela says that differing political views haven’t been an issue for the commission members. 

“It’s honestly difficult for me if you were to ask who is a Republican, who is an independent and who is a Democrat. I wouldn’t be able to tell you off the top of my head because I don’t see those lines being drawn within the commission,” Szetela said. “I think we all respect each other, we’re all respecting the process and we’re all appreciative of the role that we have and how important it is. We’re honored by it and working together as a team to accomplish this very important goal that’s been put on our shoulders by the Michigan voters.”

Prior to Proposal 2 in 2018, Republican-controlled Legislatures and the Michigan Supreme Court have historically drawn district lines. During the 2000 and 2010 redistricting cycles, the Republican Legislatures determined redistricting, and the Michigan Supreme Count drew the maps during the 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990 redistricting cycles. 

The first MICRC public hearing will be Tuesday in Jackson. All public comments must be submitted through the portal on the MICRC website or mailed in to the commission.