Michigan earns high marks on redistricting in new report, with room for improvement

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission holds a public hearing in Lansing. (Photo by Anna Gustafson)

By Kyle Davidson, Michigan Advance

In a new report evaluating state redistricting efforts, Michigan scored a “B” based on feedback from state and local organizations, advocates and community organizers.

The report by the Coalition Hub for Advancing Redistricting & Grassroots Engagement (CHARGE), used interview survey responses to evaluate each state’s redistricting efforts, including what worked, what did not and what could be done better in the future.

Michigan ranked alongside Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana, New Mexico and Vermont. Only two states ranked higher at an “A-”: California and Massachusetts. Alabama, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Wisconsin all received the lowest grade, an “F.” 

According to the report, the states were graded based on transparency, opportunities for public input, willingness of decision makers to draw districts based on that input, adhering to nonpartisanship, empowerment of communities of color, and policy choices such as rejecting prison gerrymandering.

While redistricting was previously performed by the Legislature with the governor signing off on the effort, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 to create the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC). After the 2020 census, the MICRC — composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents — was tasked with creating new maps for the state House of Representatives, state Senate and Congress.

Coalition Hub for Advancing Redistricting & Grassroots Engagement (CHARGE) redistricting report card

The report praised the new approach for improving partisan fairness in Michigan’s electoral maps, and for extensive public participation in the process.

“I think that we’re seeing the results of the new process, right? We’ve set ourselves up to be the gold standard in the country when it comes to tackling gerrymandering and that has enabled us to advance other policies,” said Kim Murphy-Kovalick, programs director for Voters Nor Politicians, which championed the amendment creating the MICRC.

“A specific way to look at that is like when you look at the vote shares. So 49.9% of Michigan voters back Democrats to Congress and 47.6% prefer Republicans and the seats mirror that exactly,” Murphy-Kovalick said.

Democrats currently hold a slim majority over Republicans in the Legislature, with a 56-54 majority in the House and 20-18 majority in the Senate. Before the 2022 election, Republicans had controlled both houses since 2011.

“The elected officials and their party mirror the voters, which is exactly how it should be. So now we have elected officials who need to be responsive to voters if they hope to stay in office,” Murphy-Kovalick said. 

The report also highlighted “unprecedented transparency” in the redistricting process led by the MICRC compared to previous redistricting efforts led by the Legislature. 

Prior to the creation of the MICRC there was no transparency, Murphy-Kovalick said, with the intent behind the amendment being to ensure robust public participation and allowing voters to draw a line between their districts and elected officials. 

However, MICRC faced transparency concerns of its own. Multiple news outlets filed a lawsuit against the commission for its refusal to release recordings and memos of a closed session held on Oct. 27, 2021. The state Supreme Court later ruled the commission had to release all recordings of its closed sessions alongside seven legal memos. 

During the Oct. 27, 2021, meeting, the commission was set to meet with its legal counsel to discuss two memos: “The Voting Rights Act” and “The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and its Influence on Voting.”

While the report listed fairness and participation and transparency as positives, it also noted concerns that the newer maps had diminished Black voting power in Detroit districts. 

In the report, Branden Snyder, executive director of Detroit Action, said the MICRC “created ‘competitive’ maps that unpacked Black districts, but depowered Black voters by creating Detroit districts that were joined with the suburbs that were 40% or less Black.”

These maps have faced challenges from members of the Detroit Caucus — a group of Black state lawmakers from metro Detroit — alongside residents from metro Detroit. While the Michigan Supreme Court rejected a suit arguing the new maps disenfranchised Black voters, another case arguing the new districts stifles the power of Black voters and their ability to elect leaders who reflect them is set to go to trial

In its recommendations for how to improve the State’s redistricting process, the report encouraged the commission to improve its Voting Rights Act compliance training, ensuring districts are drawn to ensure sufficiently concentrated Black communities can elect candidates of their choice. 

“I think there are certainly, there are always lessons to be learned, right? But when Voters Not Politicians drafted the redistricting amendment, we developed the criteria for map drawing and the first criteria — and these have to be followed in order — is the requirement that all district maps must comply with the Voting Rights Act,” Murphy-Kovalick said. 

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority groups listed in the act — which includes Asian languages, Native American languages and Spanish —  and protects against vote dilution. However, voting rights advocates argue these protections have been watered down over time by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

There is value in the report’s recommendations for additional Voting Rights compliance training for commissioners, Murphy-Kovalick said. 

Murphy-Kovalick also spoke in favor of the recommendation that commissioners receive assistance sorting through public input. In its most recent map-making effort, the commission received 30,000 pieces of public comment and testimony to consider in crafting the maps. 

Because the 2020 census was delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission had to work on a compressed timeline. Having some help sorting through testimony would be a valuable lesson to take into the next round of redistricting, Murphy-Kovalick said. 

In an emailed statement to the Advance, Edward Woods III, the executive director of the MICRC, said the commission followed seven pieces of required criteria in crafting its maps, thanking Common Cause, which participated in the coalition releasing the Community Redistricting Report Card, alongside other organizations that helped gather public comments during the redistricting process. 

“As outlined in Michigan’s constitution, the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission followed the seven-ranked redistricting criteria in drawing fair maps for Congressional, State Senate, and State House districts,” Woods said. “We appreciate the nearly 40 statewide organizations, including Common Cause, that assisted in gathering nearly 30,000 public comments for the commission’s consideration in drawing fair maps.”

In its lessons learned and recommendations report published in October 2022, the first commission said there should be serious consideration given to hiring a larger staff than in 2021. It also noted that more time and training should be allocated to orientation about Michigan’s unique regional populations, saying that while commissioners were familiar with the characteristics of their region, they lacked knowledge about other regions of the state with which they were unfamiliar. 

It also called for a better definition of communities of interest, the commission’s third criteria for consideration, which currently states: “Districts shall reflect the state’s diverse population and communities of interest. Communities of interest may include, but shall not be limited to, populations that share cultural or historical characteristics or economic interests. Communities of interest do not include relationships with political parties, incumbents, or political candidates.”

The commission also called for a better system to sort and analyze public comment, and advised future panels against going into closed meetings, save for private personnel or lawsuit related matters. 

Disclosure: The Michigan Advance financially contributed to the 2021 media lawsuit against the MICRC.

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