Can Michigan redistricting panel play nice, draw legal maps? It may get messy
- Barring U.S. Supreme Court intervention, Detroit-area state legislative maps must be redrawn by spring
- Commission infighting, recent departures has court, critics worried about whether members can finish the task
- Commission executive director says the 13-member panel is ‘mature enough’ to get the job done
U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney on Friday had a seemingly simple question for Michigan’s redistricting commission: What is the confidence level that members can put aside differences and redraw 13 metro Detroit legislative districts deemed illegal?
The response was hardly reassuring: It’s “impossible to say,” the panel’s attorney, Patrick Lewis told the court.
“A more comforting answer would be 100 percent,” Maloney retorted.
Five years into Michigan’s grand experiment in citizen-led redistricting, the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is once again being pressed into service — and not for wonderful reasons.
Its 13 members have spent months undermining their colleagues’ qualifications, accusing each other of subterfuge and squabbling over procedure. They’ve also raised concerns by continuing to draw $40,000 annual paychecks for two years after wrapping up work on state House, Senate and congressional maps.
A three-judge panel in December deemed the following districts unconstitutional and ordered them redrawn. Reconfiguring the districts could affect adjoining ones as well, causing other changes. Here are the ones at issue:
- House District 1, represented by Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit
- House District 7, represented by Rep. Helena Scott, D-Detroit
- House District 8, represented by Rep. Mike McFall, D-Hazel Park
- House District 10, represented by House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit
- House District 11, represented by Rep. Veronica Paiz, D-Harper Woods
- House District 12, represented by Rep. Kimberly Edwards, D-Eastpointe
- House District 14, represented by Rep. Donavan McKinney, D-Detroit
- Senate District 1, represented by Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor
- Senate District 3, represented by Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit
- Senate District 6, represented by Sen. Mary Cavanagh, D-Redford Township
- Senate District 8, represented by Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak
- Senate District 10, represented by Sen. Paul Wojno, D-Warren
- Senate District 11, represented by Sen. Veronica Klinefelt, D-Eastpointe
Now, the panel is under the spotlight again after a federal three-judge panel concluded it “overwhelmingly” drew state legislative districts on the basis of race and relied on faulty data that denied Black voters proper representation.
- Detroit legislative districts could be redrawn by spring, court suggests
- Michigan redistricting panel votes to appeal court ruling invalidating Detroit districts
- Three new members selected for Michigan redistricting commission
- Detroiters ask court for Senate elections this year in disputed districts
- Experts: ‘Everything up in the air’ now that Michigan districts must be redrawn
Barring intervention from the U.S. Supreme Court, a second mapping process is imminent, with big implications for the 2024 elections and beyond: New districts could hinder Democrats’ slight edge in the Legislature.
Federal judges are considering a timeline that would result in new districts by spring. They are eying a “dual track” system in which both the commission and a court-appointed expert would simultaneously reconfigure the maps, with the court choosing which set best complies with constitutional obligations.
The big question before the court: Can the commission play nice long enough to do the work, especially since three original members quit in recent weeks and were replaced by three people with no redistricting experience?
Two other members face formal challenges from their colleagues to kick them off the commission.
"The commission and its members appear more intent on cannibalizing each other than functioning as a cohesive group to draw a set of acceptable maps," argued attorneys for Detroit voters who sued over the maps.
Edward Woods, the commission’s executive director, told reporters Friday that “even though it's had some infighting, (the panel is) mature enough” to do the job.
Judge Raymond Kethledge said he’s not sure the commission deserves the benefit of the doubt, characterizing its recent work as “defiance and disarray.”
All three former commissioners now watching from the outside told Bridge Michigan they’re concerned chaos surrounding the commission could sully the citizen-led process they worked for years to uphold.
“To the three new individuals, I’d say buckle up and enjoy the ride,” said former Democratic Commissioner Dustin Witjes. “It's gonna be messy.”
A troubled dynamic
Michigan’s fate is being watched nationally, as good government advocates sometimes cite the citizens panel as a “national model” to end gerrymandering.
Created by voters in 2018, the commission was designed to take the politics out of a historically political process.
For decades, the party in power in Lansing redrew legislative districts every 10 years, largely behind closed doors. That produced maps so skewed toward Republicans that a panel of judges in 2019 called them a “gerrymander of historical proportions.” The constitutional amendment creating the commission required members to work in public, have varied partisan leanings and no political ties.
Ultimately, it was personalities, not politics, that led to discord on the panel.
“They've been a really good group to work with, particularly the first two years,” former Republican Commissioner Doug Clark said. “And then the next two years began to migrate toward a lot of chaos. I’m not very happy about that.”
In the weeks since the Dec. 21 court ruling, the commission has undergone dramatic upheaval.
Clark and Witjes resigned in part due to criticisms over their residency from independent Commissioner Rebecca Szetela. Clark has been living in California for medical reasons but maintains a residence in Michigan, and Witjes moved to Illinois to take a job he said he thought would be temporary.
On his way out, Witjes filed paperwork calling for Szetela’s removal, claiming she communicated with attorneys for the Detroit voters during the case. Her testimony was particularly damning for the commission, saying the process "became all about race" and concluding, “I think the plan should be revised.”
Szetela had questioned Witjes’ and Clark’s continued presence on the commission while they were living out of state. She also filed paperwork aiming to remove fellow independent Commissioner Anthony Eid, claiming he tinkered with the maps to make more favorable seats for two Democratic state House candidates. Eid has denied the allegations.
Witjes, who said he had planned to resign anyway, accused Szetela of engaging in “an act of intentional sabotage” with the court case.
Clark agreed, laying the blame of recent drama on the commission with Szetela and her allies, Republican commissioners Rhonda Lange and Erin Wagner.
During Clark’s last meeting on Dec. 28, the commission was prevented from voting on a motion to appeal after all three abruptly left the meeting, preventing the commission from holding a quorum.
“There’s a pattern of behavior that’s going on among three individuals that I feel personally very disturbed about,” he said.
According to court filings from plaintiffs, Szetela recently submitted a letter to the court requesting protection from retaliation.
When contacted by Bridge, Szetela wrote in a text message that she has “confidence that the three judge federal panel will issue a fair decision with respect to how the commission should proceed.”
Former Democratic Commissioner MC Rothhorn, who had a reputation as a bridge-builder on the panel, also submitted his resignation late last year, citing “trust issues.”
“The hardest part for me is just the mistrust on the commission, which feels like it's going to be hard to overcome, too hard for me to overcome,” Rothhorn told Bridge.
He and the other two departing members were succeeded by Imlay City resident Elaine Andrade, Farmington Hills resident Donna Callaghan and Lincoln Park resident Marcus Muldoon last week.
They were randomly selected from a pool of applicants who initially applied to serve on the commission between October 2019 and June 2020. All three agreed to serve and were sworn in during a surprise meeting Thursday.
Rothhorn said he has faith new members coming in will help the current commission rebuild and predicted they “will do much better than a tired old soul like me.”
Commission Chair Cynthia Orton, a Republican, told reporters Friday the new members will get orientations to try and bring them up to speed as soon as possible.
“I think it will work,” she said. “I don't exactly know how it's going to work.”
A new strategy
Moving forward, commissioners will have to take a new approach than they were initially advised when handling metro Detroit districts.
The commission, led by its hired experts, tried to undo 2011 maps that overwhelmingly favored Republicans by “unpacking” the city of Detroit.
Old maps were largely focused on the city, which lost 90,000 residents since the 2010 census and now has about 620,000 people.
The commission’s strategy involved separating the city’s majority-Black population into districts that spread like a pinwheel from Detroit into Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
Plaintiffs argued the districts came at the expense of Black Detroiters. Federal judges agreed, concluding that commissioners repeatedly used map-drawing tools at their disposal to “identify high-density African-American communities and then to dilute them.”
Before redistricting, Michigan had 10 House districts and three Senate districts almost entirely within Detroit, one of the nation’s largest majority-Black cities where nearly 78 percent of the population is Black.
After redistricting, there were seven House seats that were majority Black — one in Flint and the rest in and around Detroit. None of the Senate seats was majority Black. And none of the House districts exceeded 59 percent Black.
Before 2022, there were 15 Black lawmakers in the state House and five in the state Senate. With the new maps, representation fell to 14 in the House and three in the Senate.
Clark, the former Republican commissioner, said he feared the court’s decision could ultimately mean Michigan districts are back where they started.
“The maps that we drew I feel were maps that in the majority of the districts, anyone, any candidate could have won, Republican or Democrat,” he said. “Now we’re getting away from that…We’re going back to what we had before we even started, and that’s packing Detroit with African Americans.”
Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, said the commission will be “forced to meet the challenge” presented to them by courts, but expressed concern about how independent the commission will be able to be moving forward.
She’s also concerned about ongoing costs to taxpayers — the panel’s budget is $3.17 million, 25 percent of the budget for the Michigan Department of State. The commission in 2022 sued the Legislature for more funds after it wasn’t included in that year’s budget cycle.
“It should not be a free for all,” Bollin said. “They made decisions…and spent money that they didn't have the authority to spend. And the Legislature had to basically come back and pay the bill.”
Regardless of the outcome of the case, the commission’s legacy as a “national model” for good government was impacted by its treatment of Black Detroit voters, Matt Grossmann, a political science professor and the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, recently told Bridge.
“This was always a negative mark on their success, because even independent of this decision, the fact that they made Black voters of Detroit upset and feeling like they were taken advantage of, that made a difference,” Grossmann said. “But now, that's forever key to the history of the commission.”
Commissioners are set to meet again Thursday to discuss upcoming meeting dates, including in-person public hearings in Detroit.
The judges overseeing the redraw process could issue an order as soon as this week determining next steps, including whether the court will appoint a mapping expert and a timeline for moving forward.
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