By Allison R. Donahue, Michigan Advance
The Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission (MICRC) has been working on drafting maps for the state Senate, House and congressional districts for several weeks, but the drafts that have been made public so far are far from the final product.
This is the first time that the 13-person panel, composed of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents, have been charged with drawing districts since voters approved a 2018 measure. Prior to that, the Legislature was in charge of redistricting, with the governor signing off on maps.
The new legislative district lines will go into effect for the 2022 elections and be in effect for the next 10 years.
The MICRC has received some public criticism for transparency issues and blowing past a constitutional deadline to release a draft of updated district lines. There have been concerns about the partisan makeup of the current drafts released in recent weeks, particularly from Democrats.
But Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the group that led the 2018 initiative to form the MICRC, said that it’s too early to panic about what the final maps will look like.
“This is where maybe some people get concerned. Everybody has expectations, including the commission itself, and these are not the final maps. They’re not even close,” said Wang. “And after you go through a partisan fairness analysis and look at other things, including the Voting Rights Act, these lines will change substantially.”
MICRC spokesperson Edward Woods III said that now is the time for the public to chime in about concerns or comments about the proposed maps.
“They’re telling the commission how they feel about the proposed draft maps, which is the process. So we applaud the public for engaging and being interactive with the process and sharing with the commission how they should draw the maps. That’s exactly what should be happening,” Woods said.
The MICRC faced an unprecedented delay in census data that the commission relies on to see population shifts across the state. Typically in Michigan, census data is available around February. This year, however, due to complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the early census data wasn’t made available until mid-August.
The panel has a constitutional deadline of Sept. 17 for draft maps and a Nov. 1 deadline for adopting a final plan. But the commission wasn’t able to make the Sept. 17 deadline and doesn’t plan to meet the November deadline, either.
A lawsuit was filed against the commission by Robert Davis, a frequently litigious Highland Park resident, earlier this month, asking the state Supreme Court to enforce the original constitutional deadlines, but the court dismissed the suit.
“The commission had to weigh a number of different bad options,” said Quentin Turner, program director for the good government group Common Cause of Michigan. “Ultimately, I think the commission decided that they highly value public input, they highly value the ability to give people time to talk about their communities of interest. … I think the choice being made to expand their timeline and to go with an altered timeline was the right one.”
The MICRC has been hosting day-long meetings across the state open to public comment as members work through creating the map drafts.
The next step for the MICRC is to consider election data from 2016, 2018 and 2020, which will once again significantly change the district maps.
“Right now, we know they are behind schedule for finishing their state house maps. This means the next two weeks that were supposed to be partisan fairness review and deliberation will be cut somewhat short, though we don’t know yet how much. Even with the adjusted timeline, they have a very tight schedule to do their work,” Turner said.
One of the big issues the MICRC has to keep in mind is the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires districts to fairly represent minority communities.
The goal is to avoid having “packed” districts, which means concentrating many minority voters into a single district to reduce their influence in other districts, or “cracked” districts, which means spreading minority voters among many districts in order to deny them political power.
So far for the congressional district map drafts, only three districts have White populations of less than 75% — districts 1, 2 and 3.
Input sessions on the maps after the partisan election data has been considered will begin in early October. But until final maps are completed the commission will continue to release drafts for public input.
Commissioners anticipate approving final maps by Dec. 30, but if the panel were to make any revisions, the 45-day public comment period would start over. Many experts also expect additional lawsuits that could further slow down the process.
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