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Michigan redistricting panel’s maps prompt complaints from all sides

For the last few weeks, the 13-member redistricting commission has been scoring their maps for partisan fairness using a composite score of the last 13 elections. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

Oct. 15: Michigan redistricting panel’s maps spark racial backlash, fairness questions
Oct. 11: Michigan redistricting drafts could make state Senate a toss-up

Oct. 11: Michigan congressional redistricting drafts are done. Few incumbents are safe
Oct. 11: Republicans have edge, but Michigan House drafts include plenty of surprises

LANSING —  As the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission rushes to finish draft congressional and legislative maps, progressives and conservatives alike are voicing fairness concerns.

On Thursday, the Voters Not Politicians nonprofit that mounted a grassroots effort in 2018 that led to the creation of the panel issued a letter calling on members to “do much better” and draw maps that are both politically balanced and preserve minority voters’ voices.  

“For the public's sake, I hope that means you will strive to achieve the levels they show you can meet, rather than settle for something that may or may not be legally defensible,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of the group.

The criticism reflects ongoing tensions in the process that is occurring in public view for the first time. For decades, the party in power in Lansing drew legislative boundaries in secret after the decennial census, resulting in what a panel of federal judges called the worst gerrymandering in the nation.

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Voters approved the creation of the panel, and it could vote on draft maps as early as Monday. The group then plans two weeks of public hearings before finalizing the districts in time for next year’s elections.

But the final days of deliberations have proved challenging, especially since the 13-member commission’s initial drafts gave Republicans an advantage in the state Legislature, even though Michigan as a whole leans Democratic.

That’s because the panel has tried to prioritize preserving “communities of interests” — groups of like-minded individuals such as minorities — rather than partisan fairness.

Tweaks to the drafts that make districts more fair politically, though, have generated pushback when communities of interest are split — such as the LGBT community that lives around Palmer Park in Detroit.

In recent drafts, the neighborhood — and surrounding areas — has been split into three House districts, which activist say dilutes their voice. 

Bob Chunn, president of NextVote, a Michigan-based company analyzing the map, said he realizes the community is too big for one House district.

“It has to be cut, but not this bad,” he wrote in an email to Bridge.

“It is possible to make a fair map that keeps important communities of interest, like LGBT Detroit's Palmer Park intact,” Chunn said. “

"I have seen them. They were submitted by Michigan citizens ...  It's a shame to let great ideas go to waste."

Edward Woods, the communications director of the commission, told Bridge Michigan the commission is taking public input into consideration, along with legal requirements, as it draws the maps.

Adjusting the districts to make them more fair to both political parties also has prompted complaints about Republicans.

Up until Thursday, the commission had used the results of the past 13 elections, along with four metrics, to determine whether districts were politically fair.

But one of the commission’s consultants suggested Thursday using the 2016 election data to adjust the districts. 

That was the first time since 1988 that a Republican presidential candidate carried Michigan, so using that data alone could result in maps that favor Democrats since 2016 was something of an aberration.

“You can’t use just one election cycle to determine partisan fairness,” Tony Daunt, executive director of the conservative advocacy group FAIR Maps Michigan, told Bridge Michigan. “Anyone suggesting that is either a fool, or is trying to benefit one party over another.”

Kimball Brace, the commission’s mapping expert, told Bridge on Thursday night he suggested the use of the 2016 election because it was one of the most closely contested in the state.

“It had nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans,” Brace said, adding that the commission has to look at closed contests as part of their analysis of partisan fairness. 

Maps aren’t the only criticism.

A liberal group, Progress Michigan, also blasted the panel on Thursday for seeking $61,446 for a Freedom of Information Act request for all communications between commissioners and members of the public and outside groups.

Progress Michigan claimed the commission said the records contained 38,000 pages but cut the price in half because it missed a deadline to respond to the request. 

Lonnie Scott, the executive director of Progress Michigan, said in a statement the group will “use all legal remedies available to make sure the public has access to these records.”

“We’ve seen these tactics used before to dissuade the public from accessing what should be publicly available information but usually by shady public officials … not a new commission founded on bringing transparency to the process of redistricting,” Scott said. 

Bridge asked the commission's spokesperson, Woods, detailed questions about the cost and timeliness of records requests to the commission.

He responded with a statement that read the panel "continues to operate openly and transparently. Since the beginning, all our meetings have been live-streamed and still available through our Facebook page and YouTube channel. In following the Michigan Compiled Laws regarding FOIA requests, we also continue to operate openly and transparently.”

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