The 13 people selected Monday to draw the political boundaries for Michigan for the next decade include a lawyer, real estate agent, bank manager, a tech specialist and others.
They’re from Interlochen, Lansing, Battle Creek, Ypsilanti, Detroit and elsewhere and range in age from 27 to 73. By design, their demography mostly mirrors Michigan: 10 are white, two are Black and one identifies his ethnicity as Middle Eastern. They have no significant political history outside of voting.
But that’s about to change: The state’s new citizens’ redistricting commission, selected randomly Monday from a pool of applicants, will spend the next year hosting town hall meetings and soliciting input from residents before drawing new political districts using Census data that will shape state politics for the next decade.
“This is history,” said Assistant Secretary of State Heaster Wheeler following the drawing Monday afternoon.
The commission was approved by more than 60 percent of voters statewide in the 2018 November election and will replace the traditional process in which district lines are drawn every 10 years by the political party in power in the state Legislatures.
For the last two redistricting cycles, that has been Republicans and produced a set of lines that consistently gave the GOP a majority in the state Legislature, even though they often received fewer votes.
In an opinion last year that was later set aside, federal judges wrote that Michigan’s districts are a “political gerrymander of historical proportions.”
The new panel includes four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents. Applicants reported their own political affiliation and signed statements saying they didn’t have a background that would exclude them from serving, such as running for partisan office or working as a lobbyist in the last six years.
Nearly 10,000 people applied to serve on the commission. That pool was narrowed down to 200 in June and 180 people in July. They will meet for the first time by mid-October and have until November 1, 2021 to finalize the maps.
Some of the commissioners supported Voters Not Politicians, the group that spearheaded the ballot measure behind the commission.
MC Rothhorn, a 48-year-old Democrat from Lansing who was selected, donated $100 to the group in April 2018. Anthony Eid, a 27-year-old Independent from Orchard Lake in Oakland County, posted on his Facebook in August 2018 that the initiative “may end up being the most important proposal on the whole ballot in November” and urged his friends to support it.
Dustin Witjes, a 31-year-old Democratic product support specialist in the Ann Arbor area, was selected to serve on the commission as a Democrat. He told Bridge he didn’t expect to be picked and was “just floored” when he got a call from Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson telling him he was chosen.
“I voted for [the commission] to become law, so I always thought it was interesting,” Witjes said. “I feel like it’s a civic duty to try and better the state if I can.”
Besides Rothhorn, Eid and Witjes, commissioners include:
- Douglas Clark of Rochester Hills: A 73-year-old Republican who wrote on this application he plans to bring to approach the job with “objectivity, an ability to work with others and an honest and sincere approach.”
- Juanita Curry of Detroit: A 72-year-old Democrat who said she’s a pastor. “I would like to get a job where I can be of good service to my community as well as help my church in the process,” she wrote.
- James Decker of Fowlerville: A 59-year-old independent who wrote he feels Michigan has become too politically polarized. “As a society it is easier to complain and castigate and much harder to work and find solutions to problems,” he wrote. “I prefer to solve problems.”
- Brittni Kellom of Detroit: A 33-year-old Democrat who runs an advocacy organization for child survivors of trauma and wrote that she believes ““in the power of everyday citizens to effect change.”
- Rhonda Lange of Reed City: A 47-year-old Republican who said the commission “would be a way for me to serve my community and state.”
- Steven Lett of Interlochen: A 73-year-old independent, a retired attorney who used to represent labor unions. He told Bridge “given today’s politics, redistricting is going to require a lot of hard work” and he’s looking forward to it.
- Cynthia Orton of Battle Creek: A 54-year-old Republican who wrote she takes voting seriously. “I would like to participate in the process of making sure individual votes count and that elected officials represent the will of the majority of their constituents.”
- Janice Vallette of Highland: A 68-year-old independent who wrote that it’s important “all votes are counted and not wasted” and that districts shouldn’t favor one party over another.
- Erin Wagner of Charlotte: A 54-year-old Republican who wrote she “believe(s) in the process” and wants to ensure districts are representative of the people who live there.
- Richard Weiss of Saginaw: A 73-year-old Independent who wrote it’s his duty to serve if chosen “because I am an American.”
Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians said the group is “ecstatic,” adding “it’s exciting to see that the fair, impartial, and transparent process voters envisioned is working as it was intended.”
The semifinalist pool of 200 was chosen using a weighted formula to reflect the demographic and geographic makeup of the state based on Census data. It included 78 percent of people who identify as white, 13 percent as Black, 4 percent as Hispanic or Latino, 3 percent as Asian, 0.5 percent as Indigenous and 4 percent as two or more races.
Legislative leaders of both parties in the House and Senate were allowed to strike 20 people total from the pool. The final draw was random.
Each commissioner will be paid just under $40,000 per year. They’re required to conduct all of their work at open meetings and aren’t allowed to talk about redistricting outside of the public meetings unless it’s in writing.
They’re allowed to hire statisticians and other nonpartisan experts to advise them and will have to consider a number of criteria, including “communities of interest” and political makeup, to draw the districts. The constitution requires they hold at least five public hearings to get input.
The public will have at least 45 days to review the maps the group comes up with. Then, the commissioners will vote on the maps. For a plan to be approved, it will have to receive a majority vote of at least two Democrats, two Republicans and two Independents. If no plan received the required balance of votes, they will use a ranked-choice voting system to determine the winners.