As Michigan’s redistricting process enters its final phase, here’s what experts want to see

Pictured is a previously proposed draft map for Southeast Michigan state House on Aug. 23, 2021.

By Allison R. Donahue, Michigan Advance

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) approved its nine collaborative proposed maps and an additional six from individual commissioners for the state Senate, state House and congressional districts earlier this month. 

The lines will go into effect for the 2022 elections and be in place for 10 years. Now experts are weighing in on the maps as the commission — which is composed of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents — prepares for another round of public hearings starting in Ann Arbor Thursday. 

Nancy Wang is executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the organization that spearheaded Proposal 2 that passed in 2018 and created the MICRC. She said at a press conference Wednesday that now is the time for the MICRC to be open with the public about their decision-making process going forward with these maps. 

“It’s important at this point for the commission to step in and do a better job. It’s put a ton of information out there and it’s been transparent, but it really needs to do a good job of coming out and explaining the differences  and why it made the decisions that it did,” Wang said. 

The proposed maps are now in the final 45-day period of public hearings until Dec. 29.

In order for the maps to be approved, the commission must first put the maps up for a vote, needing a majority vote of at least two Republicans, two Democrats and three independents. 

If that fails, the commission will rank maps for final approval. And if the Commission cannot agree upon a ranking, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson will randomly select final maps forwarded by the commission.

The commission also is set to meet Dec. 2 in Lansing, Dec. 16 in Detroit and Dec. 30 in Lansing, where a final vote is scheduled.

The commission has run several tests on its maps. 

The median-mean test measures how difficult it is for a party to obtain a majority of the delegation. The lopsided test measures the difference between the average vote share of one party in a district won by that party, and the average vote share of another party in a district won by that party. The test for efficiency gaps measures how parties translate statewide votes into seats.

“The commission’s own results show the worst-performing maps given in all of these different tests that they run. And I think that says something, and that’s definitely probably something that they’re going to hear about during public comment,” Wang said. 

In a 161-page report, Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR) also reviewed the proposed maps and provided recommendations to improve the representation of communities of interest, increase population equality across districts and address remaining Voting Rights Act (VRA) compliance concerns, especially in Detroit. 

The report ranked Plan Chestnut as the best congressional map, Plan SD Kellom (#270), submitted by Commissioner Brittni Kellom, a Democrat, as the best state Senate map and recommended that both Plan Magnolia and Plan Hickory are better House maps than Plan Pine V5 based on the seven constitutional criteria. The criteria include:

  • Districts shall be of equal population as mandated by the United States constitution, and shall comply with the VRA and other federal laws. 
  • Districts shall be geographically contiguous.
  • Districts shall reflect the state’s diverse population and communities of interest. 
  • Districts shall not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party. 
  • Districts shall not favor or disfavor an incumbent elected official or a candidate. 
  • Districts shall reflect consideration of county, city, and township boundaries. 
  • Districts shall be reasonably compact.

“We are confident that the maps produced by the commission will better meet the criteria outlined in the Constitution than the prior maps. Despite some complaints, the Michigan public and policymaking community share our confidence,” said IPPSR analysis lead author Jon X. Eguia, MSU professor of economics and political science.

While some groups have been supportive of the MICRC as it figures out in real-time how to draw district maps and has worked together in a bipartisan way, the commission has not been immune to controversy. 

“The commission has largely worked cooperatively to propose and edit maps. But that does not mean the process has been free of drama. Commissioners have at times been in open conflict with one another on some issues,” Eguia said. 

During the mapping sessions in early fall, the commission was highly criticized for its approach to ensure it was following the VRA and splitting up Black communities. The commissioners were advised by their VRA consultant and legal counsel that compliance with the VRA could be achieved in Detroit with as little as 35% to 40% Black voting age population in a district and that more than that would be considered “packing” a district. 

The MICRC has also been criticized for maps that some say lack partisan fairness, with either advantages for Republicans in some maps or advantages for the Democrats in other maps.

The other controversy the commission faced in recent weeks involved transparency during meetings and their interpretation of what the MICRC is allowed to do by the constitution. 

In late October, the commission moved into a closed session to discuss the VRA and the history of voting-related discrimination in Michigan, citing attorney-client privilege, the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act in supporting the closed session. Sens. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) and Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) asked Attorney General Dana Nessel for a formal legal opinion on the constitutionality of the closed session.

On Nov. 5, the commission asked for legal advice on when individual commissioners could submit their own redistricting plans and if they could submit their maps for public comment before the final 45-day public comment period. 

The IPPSR analysis said that the constitutional amendment governing redistricting as they understand it would require the 45 days of public comment for new maps. 

Wang said in moving forward, VNP might recommend some “tweaks” to the commission’s standard operating procedures.

“We know a little more about how they’re going to proceed or the language a little more than we did. It’s not an indictment at all about what the commission has done this inaugural cycle. I think it’s really done an amazing job for the citizens of Michigan. But of course, it wasn’t perfect, but I don’t think us, or anybody else, would have expected that,” Wang said.

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