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Michigan redistricting panel saves metro Detroit for last. Is that a mistake?

Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission members Dustin Witjes and Cynthia Orton talk over a district change on Wednesday in East Lansing. (Bridge Michigan photo by Dale Young)

EAST LANSING —  As Michigan’s redistricting commission drafts new legislative districts, some critics worry members aren’t devoting enough time to draw maps for the state’s most populous areas.

The Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission has spent the last few weeks drawing drafts of state legislative districts in the Upper Peninsula, and northern and west Michigan.

The commission has changed its timeline at least three times, but all of the schedules leave most of the drawing of the state’s three biggest counties — Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb— for last.

Those three counties have about 3.9 million residents, out of the state’s 10.1 million residents.

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The commission — which was created by voters in 2018 to wrest redistricting from politicians — is under a tight deadline to draw the maps, and some say saving metro Detroit for last could rush the process.

“I’m worried that you aren’t going to give an equitable amount of time to this area,” Aisha Zanib, member of the board of directors of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote - Michigan, told commissioners Wednesday. 

“I’m urging you to please reconsider spending more time mapping out the Detroit metro area so that it takes into account all the intricacies that exist and that it is in favor of the people.”

Like other states, Michigan redraws its local, state and congressional districts every 10 years, after the decennial census is released. For years in Lansing, the political party in power has drawn the maps, which has led to some of the nation’s most gerrymandered districts that benefit Republicans.

The commission was created by a statewide vote to make the process more transparent and less political, but has been beset with issues ranging from attendance of members to changing deadlines over when the districts need to be completed in time for next year’s elections.

Under the commission’s new timeline, senate districts in Detroit, Saginaw and Flint will be drawn on Thursday. 

Meanwhile, state House and congressional districts are slated to be drafted on Sept. 14, and Sept. 20 to 22. 

Edward Woods, the communications and outreach director for the commission, said the panel is flexible and is open to adding more days to drawing districts if needed.

“If we need to schedule more dates, we will do so,” Woods said. “Our commitment is the same across the entire state of Michigan.”

More challenges abound

The commission has spent the last three weeks drafting political boundaries in the Upper Peninsula, south, east and west sides of the state. 

But so far, the regional maps drafted by the commission have been impossible for most voters to access.

The commission has posted them on its website, but in a shapefile format that can only be downloaded and viewed using sophisticated mapping software programs. 

On Wednesday, panel members voted to allow Virginia-based Election Data Services, Inc. — the commission’s mapping consultant — to upload the drafts in an easy-to-view format. 

But the drafts won’t appear on the commission’s website — they will be housed on the website of Election Data Services.

Commissioner Cynthia Orton, a Republican from Battle Creek, questioned why can’t the maps be posted online in an easier format. 

“Why are we needing to complicate things with another place that the public needs to go?” Orton asked. “Why can't we just publish our maps?”

Woods told reporters Wednesday the panel has faced some technological hiccups trying to upload the drafts.

“Unfortunately, the shapefiles and the tools that we thought we could use to be more open and transparent have proven to be more cumbersome,” Woods said. “We keep trying until we get it right.”

Woods said Election Data Services was supposed to have the maps up by Wednesday afternoon. As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, the maps were not online.

The commission has come under criticism for not publishing meeting agendas until right before the start of the meetings, and for publishing minutes a week after meetings.

According to state law, the commission has eight business days to publish proposed minutes, and it has waited until the eighth day to approve them and post them on the website. 

Tori Sachs, executive director of the conservative advocacy group Michigan Freedom Fund, told Bridge Michigan in a statement the commission has failed to follow its promise of complete transparency. 

“How are voters supposed to trust the integrity of an independent commission when … the commission staff refuses to transparently post the meeting agendas and maps that are being drawn?,” Sachs said.

Lawsuit over deadline

The commission is rushing to meet a self-imposed Sept. 30 deadline to finish drafting maps. It expects to have drafts ready for public review on Oct. 8.

This timeline doesn’t follow constitutional deadlines, which stipulate the commission is supposed to release the drafts on Sept. 17. 

Commission members have acknowledged they will miss that deadline because of delays in receiving census data. The U.S. Census Bureau released raw population counts on Aug. 12, and has said it will release the same data in an easy-to-use format by Sept. 16. 

On Tuesday, Robert Davis, a former Highland Park school board member and frequent litigant, sued the commission over the deadline and asked the Michigan Supreme Court to require the commission to publish draft maps no later than Sept. 17 and to adopt the proposals by Nov. 1.

Earlier this year, the commission asked the court to allow it to miss the deadline, but the court said the request was premature. 

Julianne Pastula, the general counsel of the commission, said Wednesday the body has not been served with the lawsuit.

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