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Opinion Why Michigan’s independent redistricting has both parties in an uproar

Michigan's Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission at a meeting in Lansing in October 2021. (Carlos Osorio/AP)
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Four years ago, my friend Jon Paul Morosi, the sports broadcaster, invited me to join him in an auditorium at the University of Michigan for an appearance by Jason Kander. At the time, Kander was a rising Democratic Party star, who narrowly lost a race for the U.S. Senate in 2016.

Kander was running late, and to fill time, organizers gave the microphone to representatives from a fledgling activist group called Voters Not Politicians. It was my introduction to their bid to strip Michigan’s redistricting process from the Republican-held legislature so redistricting could be handled by an independent group.

The lofty goal appeared to be a pipe dream back then, but now it has been achieved — and it’s turning into something of a political nightmare.

Six years ago, moving the redistricting process to an independent commission appeared unlikely to happen because elaborate gerrymandering had long been baked into Michigan politics, and the state’s voters were famously resistant to initiatives floated by the public. Between 2012 and 2018, they approved only one out of nine ballot proposals.

And independent redistricting efforts are scarce: Fewer than one-fifth of states use them to draw congressional districts, while only about a quarter use them for legislative districts.

“We thought coming in that it was a moon shot,” says Nancy Wang, one of the original Voters Not Politicians volunteers, who is now the group’s executive director. Yet after a relentless organizing drive, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved the 2020 effort to establish the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

Now, two years later, the commission has finished drafting new congressional and legislative maps — and no one seems happy.

Black community representatives have filed a lawsuit, angry that the commission did away with two majority-Black congressional districts and redrew other majority Black districts.

“Detroit deserves to have Black leaders,” Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a former state representative who is now a Detroit school board member, told the Associated Press last month. “We want to make sure that our children have an opportunity to see themselves in the Legislature.”

The new map has prompted the retirement of Michigan’s only Black congresswoman, Brenda Lawrence, whose majority-minority district essentially vanished. Other lawmakers, including Rep. Debbie Dingell, are switching districts to improve their chances of reelection.

At least two Democratic members of Congress — Reps. Andy Levin and Haley Stevens — will be forced into a primary showdown against each other.

Republicans are unhappy, too. A GOP group filed suit last month, complaining that the commission didn’t draw districts with equal populations as required, and used an “arbitrary" and “inconsistent” approach to drawing its maps.

Meanwhile, the redistricting commission’s attorney announced in late January that she’s stepping down. “The change comes as tensions plague the board assigned to draw the state’s political maps,” the AP noted.

The commission, composed of four Republicans, four Democrats and four independents, was destined to run into criticism, given the bare-knuckle nature of Michigan politics and the high stakes of locking in new district maps every 10 years.

But the members’ lack of public policy experience might have added to the current angst over the results. Members were randomly chosen from a pool of interested voters, no experience necessary, and handed seven criteria to follow under the new state law. Among the criteria, they were required to consider “communities of interest,” compactness rather than gerrymandering and partisan fairness, and they were told not to favor incumbents.

That made their work strenuous. The late delivery of 2020 Census figures that are the basis for redistricting didn’t help. Commissioners asked for more time, but were refused. At least one death threat came in. Members openly bickered at one chaotic meeting. Pandemic restrictions forced them to conduct much of their work online and hold hearings on Zoom.

Late in the process, the commission went into an ill-advised secret session. Memos and audio subsequently revealed that the discussion centered on whether federal voting law required districts to be majority-minority. That caused more heartburn for critics.

So far, none of the maps drafted by the Michigan commission has been overturned by the courts. And no one has definitely shown that the maps skew in favor of one party or another — as would have been automatic in the bad old gerrymandering days. The maps are due to be implemented by March 1, and then election campaigns can begin.

Wang at Voters Not Politicians says she has no regrets over the way the commission was crafted or the directions it was given under the law, though she was disappointed by the secret meeting: “There’s a difference between an uncomfortable discussion versus an undisclosed discussion.”

The Michigan experience might have been imperfect, but it beats the ridiculous, common-sense-defying gerrymandering approach of old. I hope other states look for ways to improve on what Michigan has done and not use it as an excuse to stick with the unjustifiable status quo. Keep pushing for fairness. Voters deserve it.

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