Court: Metro Detroit districts must be redrawn. Will ‘chaos’ follow?

For years, Michigan’s political districts were drawn by the party in power in Lansing. A constitutional amendment changed that, but now maps redrawn by an independent redistricting commission are in jeopardy. (Shutterstock)
  • Federal court rules 13 metro Detroit districts are illegal, dilute clout of Black voters
  • Districts a “grave disservice” to voters, rule three judges appointed by George W. Bush 
  • The ruling could force other districts to be redrawn and impact whether Democrats hold onto the state House

A federal court on Thursday ordered Michigan to redraw 13 metro Detroit-area legislative districts, a potentially seismic ruling that could affect African-American representation in Lansing and the political balance of Lansing.

A three judge panel sided with a group of metro Detroit Black voters seeking a redraw of the city’s political districts, finding that the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission “overwhelmingly — indeed inescapably” drew state legislative districts “on the basis of race," and relied on faulty data that denies Black voters proper representation.

The districts are a “grave disservice to everyone involved with this case, above all the voters themselves,” the court wrote in its opinion.

The ruling prohibits the Michigan Secretary of State from holding elections in the districts until they are redrawn. The three-judge panel will schedule a hearing in early January to determine a process for how the districts will be redrawn. 

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Time is of the essence, with a presidential primary planned in February and April 16 special elections to replace two Democrats who resigned from their posts in the state House, deadlocking the chamber 54-54.

Jonathan Kinloch, a Wayne County commissioner from Detroit, said the ruling creates a “tailspin” that jeopardizes not only Democrats’ hold on the House but also the presidential primary.

“The courts will have to move quickly to settle these issues before chaos reigns supreme,” Kinloch said.

The 116-page opinion is a rebuke of the independent citizens commission that was created by voters in 2018 to wrest control of the decennial redistricting process from politicians. 

The ruling came from three judges appointed by former President Geoge W. Bush — Raymond Kethledge, Paul Maloney and Janet Neff. 

They found that experts hired by the panel to write the maps after the 2020 Census incorrectly instructed the commission to focus on racial makeups of the voting age population when drawing political districts in and around metro Detroit.  

The experts did not take into account primary-election data, even though “everyone agrees that the elections in these districts are decided in the Democratic primaries, not the general election,” according to the opinion.

In some cases, the percentage of African-American voters in affected districts fell from 60 percent or 70 percent to less than 40 percent in the redrawn maps. Detroit districts stretched into predominantly white suburbs, dramatically reducing the clout of African American voters.

Before last year’s elections, there were 15 Black lawmakers in the state House and five in the state Senate. 

After the 2022 election that used the new maps, those numbers fell to 14 in the House and three in the Senate.

Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a former state representative from Detroit who served as a spokesperson for the plaintiffs, said the lack of Black representation in Lansing changed legislative priorities this year.

Even with the first Democratic majority in the House and Senate in 40 years, lawmakers didn’t focus on issues such as auto insurance or police accountability that disproportionately impact Black voters, Gay-Dagnogo told Bridge Michigan.

Of Thursday’s ruling, she said, “this is an opportunity for lines to be redrawn so the interests of voters in Detroit and other predominantly African-American cities can be represented in Lansing.” 

Edward Woods III, executive director of the redistricting commission, said the panel is “disappointed” by the decision and would provide additional comment Friday after reviewing the ruling further. 

A Dem win, but at expense of Black voters 

The maps drawn by the commission were supposed to last until after the 2030 census. 

They helped Democrats gain control of the House and Senate following decades of what a separate court had called a “gerrymander of historical proportions” that overwhelmingly favored Republicans.

But plaintiffs in the latest case argued the final product came at the expense of Black Detroiters.

The federal judges concluded that commissioners repeatedly used map-drawing tools at their disposal to “identify high-density African-American communities and then to dilute them.”

The commission argued its work was sound, citing data and witness testimony from one of their experts, Lisa Handley, that concluded that preserving majority-Black districts were not necessary to give Black voters an opportunity to elect candidates of choice. 

But the court found the commission did not have “anywhere near an adequate basis for the factual premise of its theory: namely, that Black voters could in fact elect their preferred candidates at the (Black voting age population) levels prescribed for the districts here.” 

“They drew districts that are not indicative of Black communities and Detroit,” said Adam Hollier, a former state senator who is campaigning for Congress.

“They drew the city of Detroit into (congressional) districts that Detroiters will not win, and Black people will not win because a majority of the voter base are in suburban communities, particularly in primaries where Democratic races are decided.”

The order comes as tension builds among the commission’s remaining members. This week, Democratic commissioner Dustin Witjes resigned from his post amid controversy over a recent move to Illinois. Another commissioner, Republican Doug Clark, is in California for medical treatments, but maintains a residence in Michigan.

Witjes’ replacement will be drawn Jan. 3 from a random pool of Democratic applicants who applied back in 2020. 

On his way out, Witjes sought the removal of independent Commissioner Rebecca Szetela, citing her recent court testimony seemingly agreeing with challenges to the commission’s work.  

Szetela had questioned Witjes’ and Clark’s continued presence on the commission at a recent meeting, and is also seeking the removal of fellow independent Commissioner Anthony Eid.

Affected districts

Districts directly affected by the court’s Thursday ruling include:

  • 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

From a mapping perspective, changing even one district would require changes to neighboring districts, which could then have broader implications for the legislative maps.

— BridgeDetroit Engagement Director Orlando Bailey contributed

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