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Michigan wanted to end gerrymandering. Census delays make it ‘really messy’

Michigan map
Democrat Joe Biden carried Michigan by extending his support into the suburbs to withstand a surge for Republican Donald Trump in rural parts of the state. But precinct-level data shows many. (Shutterstock)

April 21 update: Benson sues to give redistricting panel more time

A delay in the release of crucial U.S. Census population data is jeopardizing the timeline of Michigan’s first independent redistricting commission and sowing ‘chaos’ for potential candidates in the 2022 election. 

On Friday, the Census Bureau announced it is pushing back the release of data needed to draw Michigan’s new district lines until Sep. 30. The 13-member commission has a deadline of Sep. 17 to finish the first maps. 

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“The commission’s plate is already extra full because this is their first time,” said Tom Ivacko, executive director of the University of Michigan Center for Local, State and Urban Policy.  “They’re building the plane as they're flying it, and that’s difficult enough without an additional hassle like this.”

Political districts are redrawn every 10 years, typically by the party in power in Lansing. That’s changing this year, bolstering hopes of ending decades of gerrymandering that have allowed Republicans to keep control in the state Legislature despite getting fewer overall votes than Democrats.

The process also has heightened importance this year because Michigan’s congressional delegation is expected to fall from 14 to 13.

But if population data is delayed until September, it’s unlikely the nonpartisan commission will finish the maps in time. That benefits incumbents by persuading candidates to sit out races for competitive districts, political consultants say.

The Census announcement has sent a “shockwave” through the political system in Michigan, said John Sellek, a public relations advisor who worked for former Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican.

“It just leaves the door open for a sense of chaos and disorganization for voters who already are having a hard time having faith in government to begin with,”  Sellek said. “I think it’s going to be really messy.” 

Before last week’s announcement, the Census had planned to release the data in late July. That still would have been later than 2010, when population data was released in March.

The commission — which was created after voters approved a constitutional amendment to create it in 2018 — had planned to draw the maps after conducting 10 hearings over six months.

Now, legal action may be necessary to amend the Sept. 17 deadline, since it is included in a constitutional amendment creating the commission,  said Nancy Wang, the executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the group that campaigned for the commission.

That’s what happened in California last year when the state Supreme Court granted the redistricting commission a four-month extension to its deadlines due to the pandemic. 

Another option is seeking an opinion on deadlines from Attorney General Dana Nessel, said Steve Liedel, an attorney who worked for former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat.

The commission also could keep the current maps through the 2022 election for Michigan House and Senate districts, while drawing new congressional districts, said Jamie Roe, a GOP consultant who was involved in Republican redistricting efforts and who opposed the 2018 ballot initiative. 

“I’m hopeful this could also buy the commission more time to draw some good maps,” he said.

‘We’ve got lots of work to do’

The delay tempers some of the optimism about the commission, which was approved by more than 60 percent of voters and created to end districts that federal judges have called a “political gerrymander of historical proportions.” 

Voters Not Politicians is meeting with the national redistricting leaders and community organizations to discuss the best ways to adapt the timeline. 

One big challenge: The current schedule requires 45 days for public comment after districts are approved, with final maps to be adopted on Nov. 1. Unless that deadline is pushed back, the public would have little time to give their input during a crucial step of the process, Wang said. 

Using old Census data and other records, the commission can get about 85 percent of work done before the new population data is released, said Michael Li, redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. 

Susan Hammersmith, the commission’s executive director,  said members will begin discussing plans for responding to the delays at their next public meeting on Thursday.

“I just told (the commission) to keep calm and carry on,” Hammersmith said. “That's all we can do right now. We’ve got lots of work to do.” 

There’s no situation in which the courts or the Republican-led Legislature would become involved in the actual drawing of Michigan’s maps, Wang said. 

‘You have no case if you have no district’

Others are less optimistic about the effects of the Census delays.

Adrian Hemond, a Democratic consultant, said they will make it hard for candidates to raise money and deter experienced candidates — who are in the prime earning years of their careers — from running on short notice.

“You can't even look at an interest group with a straight face and tell them what district you're running in now,” Hemond said. “And you have no case if you don’t have a district.” 

The delays may force the Legislature to move or change filing requirements to allow candidates more time to collect signatures, said Roe, the GOP political consultant. 

Time is of the essence in political campaigns, Sellek said, and candidates would typically begin organizing and announcing their candidacy in the coming months. But some may have to hold off because of the census data holdups. Others may choose not to run at all. 

“It will be very much a wait and see approach,” Hemond said. “Combining the uncertainty with the difficulty in fundraising means some candidates are far less likely to actually decide to take the plunge.”

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