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Promise versus reality of fair redistricting

After decades of partisan gerrymandering, Michigan voters in 2018 overwhelmingly approved Proposal 2, the Independent Redistricting Commission Initiative, which transferred the power to draw the decennial state's congressional and legislative districts from the state legislature to a 13-member independent redistricting commission. Organized by the committee Voters Not Politicians, 62 percent of voters statewide approved the proposal to create the independent commission, which required four of the commissioners to be Democrats, four to be Republicans, and five to be Independents or members of third parties. In order to pass a redistricting plan, there needed to be 'yes' votes from at least seven members, two each Republicans and Democrats and at least two not affiliated with any party.


The proposal had hard requirements of commissioners, who applied in 2019 and 2020 to be a member. One was that they must be a resident of the state of Michigan. Districts had to be of equal populations and comply with the Voting Rights Act and other federal laws. The districts had to be geographically contiguous – no more weirdly drawn districts in and around communities. They had to respect the demographics of a districts and “communities of interest” – considered communities of historical, cultural and economic interests. There were to be no special advantages to political parties, incumbents, municipal boundaries or compactness. The commission had to complete the redistricting for all districts in time for the 2022 elections.


After months of meetings and maps, what was released were districts, notably in southeast Michigan, which confounded experts and citizens alike, as communities of interests as well as demographics and the Voting Rights Act were disregarded. In several districts, both for state Senate and House, residents in northwest Detroit were placed in districts with residents of Birmingham and Bloomfield. In a state Senate primary between incumbent state Senators Mallory McMorrow of Royal Oak and Marshall Bullock of Detroit, McMorrow, who is White, and Bullock, who is Black, McMorrow trounced Bullock. The same occurred in other districts, diminishing Black representation in the state legislature, and for the first time in over 50 years, there is currently no African American representing the city of Detroit in Congress.


Thirteen of those district have been declared by a federal court as unconstitutionally drawn due to race because the commission chose to keep the Black voting-age populations in those districts between 35-45 percent. A panel of three federal judges has given the commission until Friday, February 2, to redraw those districts – or the court will.


Now there are other revelations which show the redistricting commission has further stains on its hands. Turns out two of the members had moved out of state more than a year ago but had still been receiving their commission salary. Only once it became publicly known did they resign. There are also allegations that independent commissioner Anthony Eid colluded with specific Democratic candidates to help draw favorable Democrat districts.


“Partisan fairness emerged as greater than the other two (Voting Rights Act, communities of interest) when drawing the lines,” noted Oakland University political scientist Dave Dulio. He expects other districts will be impacted when they begin to redraw the 13 districts. “Odds are the dominoes will begin to fall. If you make the slightest changes to one district, it impacts the others.”


Michigan is not the first state to rely on ordinary citizens to undertake redistricting. At least 11 states have some kind of an independent redistricting commission – outside of their state legislature's purview. Michigan's was one state which redistricting experts, including the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, had huge expectations.


Michigan residents deserve better. We deserve transparency and the respect of honest commissioners who understand and obey the process.

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