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Confusion reigns over deadlines to redraw Michigan county commission maps

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Changing release schedules from the U.S. Census Bureau are causing confusion over deadlines to draw new county commission districts in Michigan. (Shutterstock)

LANSING — Clerks in Michigan’s 83 counties are at odds with the state elections officials over when they need to draft new districts for county commissions.

According to state law, counties have 60 days from the time the U.S. Census Bureau releases full population counts to draw the maps for commission seats, before filing them with the county clerk to take effect.

But changing schedules from the Census Bureau have county officials insisting the deadline is Oct. 11, while the state contends it is Nov. 29.

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“We're trying to figure out ... when we actually have to have this thing submitted,” Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck told Bridge Michigan.

As with state and federal offices, county districts are redrawn every 10 years after the Census Bureau releases population figures.

In most counties, the county districts are drawn by an apportionment commission composed of five officials: the county clerk, treasurer, prosecutor and the chairpersons of the county Democratic and Republican parties.

In counties with over 1 million residents — Wayne and Oakland — the Board of Commissioners draws the lines.

County apportionment panels that miss their deadline to draw maps would lose the authority to vote on their own proposals, the law says. Instead, they'd have to choose a plan submitted to the panel by registered voters.

Clerks worry that counties following the state’s guidance could miss deadlines and face legal challenges by residents.

“It's definitely putting a little bit of a pressure crunch,” said Roebuck, a Republican.

The confusion centers on shifting deadlines from the U.S. Census Bureau, which published decennial population tallies on Aug. 12, but did so by releasing raw data.

The agency had promised to release a user-friendly version of the data by Sept. 30, then amended the release to Sept. 16.

Clerks contend the clock for the 60-day deadline started on Aug. 12. The Secretary of State’s Bureau of Election believes it doesn’t start until Sept. 30, said Tracy Wimmer, a spokesperson for the agency.

Wimmer added the Bureau of Elections has released a tool for counties to draw maps, and has said they are allowed to begin drafting the new lines “now if they wish to do so.”

But the bureau has told clerks to consult their attorneys about the official date to follow.

The bureau has also asked the Michigan Attorney General’s office to weigh in, Wimmer said. The office declined comment to Bridge Michigan on Thursday.

Multiple attorneys consulted by counties — including Ingham and Livingston— and by the Michigan Association of County Clerks contend the state’s timeline is wrong and counties must approve districts by Oct. 11.

“The bureau’s rationale is not entirely clear,” Grand Rapids-based law firm Warner Norcross and Judd told the clerk’s association, according to an opinion obtained by Bridge Michigan.

Barb Byrum, the clerk of Ingham County, told Bridge Michigan it’s unclear why the Bureau of Elections has a different timeline.

The Democrat added her county’s attorney has also said the timeframe already started.

“It is the opinion of counsel that the deadline to have those maps drawn is Oct. 11, unless the apportionment commission wishes to have the public draw the map,” Byrum told Bridge Michigan.

The issue of what is considered complete data from the U.S. Census Bureau has also caused problems for the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

The panel, created in 2018 through a voter approval, has started drawing state legislative districts using the Aug. 12 data. However, they have said they would use the user-friendly version to cross check their work.

The group, which had a constitutional deadline of Sept. 17 to have initial political maps ready for public review, has already said the delays in the release of the data will likely make them miss it.

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