Experts: ‘Everything up in the air’ now that Michigan districts must be redrawn
- Many unknowns remain after federal court ordered 13 metro Detroit political districts redrawn
- Court decision could radically alter districts in metro Detroit to better represent Black voters, outstate effect will likely be minimal
- Court will meet again in January to determine next steps, including whether a special master is necessary
Michigan’s political landscape was upended this week when a federal court ordered mapmakers to redraw 13 metro Detroit legislative districts, a task that could potentially change the balance of power in Lansing.
Much remains unknown after a three-judge panel on Thursday sided with a group of metro Detroit Black voters seeking a redraw of the city’s political districts.
The judges ruled that the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission “overwhelmingly — indeed inescapably” drew state legislative districts “on the basis of race," relying on faulty advice from its hired experts and denying Black voters proper representation.
The judges set a January hearing for the next step that could help answer a host of unknowns, including whether maps can be redrawn without adjusting many other districts and whether changes will jeopardize Democrats’ tenuous grip on power in the state House.
One certainty: The 2024 election cycle just got more interesting.
“It's going to throw everything up in the air,” said Matt Grossmann, a political science professor and the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
“If you change the lines in these districts, you open the way to change the lines in other districts. There's a lot still left to decide, and it certainly is going to affect voters.”
The 116-page opinion is a rebuke of a citizens redistricting commission that was created by voters in 2018 to wrest control of the decennial redistricting process from politicians.
The panel began with high hopes and was viewed by some as a national model to undo gerrymandering, Grossmann said.
Since then, though, the group has been beset by such infighting that political experts and insiders who spoke to Bridge questioned whether members are up to the task of redrawing the districts without major fallout.
“How do we redraw the lines? What’s fair, because that’s such a subjective word. We have more questions than answers at this point,” said state Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, whose district the court ordered redrawn.
Here’s what we know.
How big of a deal is this ruling?
That depends on where you live — and whether the redistricting panel can redraw maps without the appointment of a special master to oversee the process.
Jeff Timmer, a political strategist who previously helped legislative Republicans draw political district maps, called the ruling a “moderate deal” since the court didn’t mandate changes to all legislative districts.
“The ripple effect of changing districts can be minimized,” he said, estimating that in theory, court-ordered changes in the House could be achieved by changing 20 districts instead of redoing all 110.
The ruling is a far bigger deal in Detroit, where residents of the majority-Black city saw representation in Lansing decline because of the maps.
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.
Now, Detroiters don’t have clarity on which district they’re in or who is running to represent them, said Adrian Hemond, CEO of the Lansing-based consulting firm Grassroots Midwest.
What happens now?
The ruling prohibits the Michigan Secretary of State from holding elections in the districts until they are redrawn.
Presidential primaries are set for Feb. 27 and early indications are that they likely will proceed as planned.
The three-judge panel — Raymond Kethledge, Paul Maloney and Janet Neff, all appointees of former President Geoge W. Bush — did not lay out an exact process for redrawing the maps, but didn’t rule out the possibility of appointing a special master to assist the commission with proceedings.
The case could also be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which Hemond said could further limit the timeline for fixing the maps.
“If the ruling is sustained at that level, there are a couple options and all are bad,” Hemond said, noting that the commission engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering, but a special master unilaterally deciding what to do would defeat the purpose of the independent redistricting process.
Jamie Lyons-Eddy, executive director of Voters Not Politicians — the group that championed the independent redistricting commission at the ballot box — told Bridge in a statement that Michigan voters deserve a continuation of a transparent and independent redistricting process that preserves statewide partisan fairness.
Will this fix the issues Black voters wanted addressed?
To be determined.
Before redistricting, Michigan had 10 House districts and three Senate districts almost entirely within Detroit, the nation’s largest majority-Black city 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.
To reflect Detroit’s continued population losses, new maps stretched 13 House districts between Detroit and the suburbs of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
That created districts that leaned Democrat, but which were not necessarily majority Black.
To address the court’s ruling, whoever makes new maps will likely have to radically alter some districts, trading precincts that are more white — and more suburban — in exchange for Detroit precincts where Blacks are in the majority.
Should Democrats be worried?
The maps helped Democrats gain control of both the House and Senate this year for the first time since the mid 1980s.
Democrats had a two-seat majority in the House until late in the year, when two members resigned after winning elections, deadlocking the chamber 54-54.
Special elections to succeed them are scheduled for April in Warren and Westland, two reliably Democratic districts. Neither were ordered redrawn, but they adjoin districts that the court ordered must be changed.
Changing the maps “doesn't need to affect the statewide partisan fairness, but that doesn't mean that it won't,” Grossmann said.
In a Thursday statement, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes expressed confidence that Democrats could keep the majority regardless.
Are commissioners up to the job?
The order comes amid regular bickering among the commission members.
Earlier this week, Democratic commissioner Dustin Witjes resigned after living in Illinois for a year. 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.
Carter, the Detroit state representative whose district must be redrawn, questioned if the panel is up to the task of making the changes.
“I don’t know that it would be a good thing, given everything we’ve heard at this point, getting the (redistricting commission) back together,” he said.
BridgeDetroit reporter Malachi Barrett contributed
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