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Michigan’s redistricting group’s maps harm Black voters, research finds

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Michigan’s redistricting process for years was controlled by the party in Lansing. A new citizen-driven process is more open, but is also generating plenty of complaints. (Shutterstock)

Oct. 28: Michigan redistricting may help Democrats. But will it hurt Black voters

LANSING — A report released this week is adding to the chorus of those who question whether the Michigan Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission’s draft maps comply with the Voting Rights Act that protects minority voters.

The report, by Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, calls the process “unusual” and claims it used incomplete data to draw districts that disperse Detroit’s Black voters into districts that stretch from the city into the suburbs.

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The report arrived days before the panel hosts its second round of public hearings, which begin Wednesday in Detroit, and as African American voters and leaders push back on the commission’s drafts.

Related:

Michigan currently has 17 majority-Black districts — two in Congress, five in the state Senate and 10 in the state House.

But in the 10 proposed maps released by the commission last week, only one district would have a voting age population of more than 50 percent African-American.

Jon Eguia, economics professor at Michigan State University and the report’s lead author, told Bridge Michigan the commission “overcorrected” what had been previously “packed” African American districts in metro Detroit.

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will host its second round of public hearings starting Wednesday, Oct. 20.

All meetings are 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Here’s the information you need to participate:

Wednesday: TCF Center, 1 Washington Blvd., Detroit 

Thursday: Lansing Center, 333 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing 

Friday: Amway Grand Plaza, 187 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids 

Monday: Treetops Resort, 3962 Wilkinson Road, Gaylord

Tuesday: Dort Financial Center, 3501 Lapeer Road, Flint 

“Packing” refers to concentrating many voters of one type — often minorities or members of a political party — into single districts to minimize their overall influence. 

“The commission ... has looked with aversion to communities that truly naturally … (have) a lot of citizens that identify as Black and said ‘We don't want those communities to be a district, we're going to break those majorities, finding non-Blacks wherever we can find them,’” Eguia said.

“That's an unusual approach to things.”

The report comes atop complaints from African-American leaders and political pollsters about the process and its impact on minority voters.

“With proposed redistricting maps that dilute the voices of voters of color, I worry that future candidates for office who look like me will not have a seat at the table,” said state Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Detroit.

“They will be forced to run for office in communities that are unwelcoming to them.”

Democrats, Republicans and others have called on constituents to flood the public meetings with public comments. The Detroit Caucus of the Michigan Legislature is organizing a Black Voters Matter rally at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at the TCF Center in Detroit ahead of the commission’s 1 p.m. meeting there.

The criticism comes despite efforts by the 13-member redistricting panel to pay special attention to the voices of minorities — and other “communities of interest” –  in drawing the districts.

The commission was created by voters in 2018 after Michigan for decades allowed the party in power to draw political boundaries after the decennial census, a process that led to gerrymandering that benefited Republicans.

The redistricting panel, made up of civilians, has paid close attention to the Voting Rights Act that is designed to allow minority groups to elect candidates of their choosing, communities of interests, and partisan fairness. 

The commission has followed the advice of Bruce Adelson, a voting rights attorney, and Lisa Handley, a partisan fairness expert, who contend districts don’t have to be more than 50 percent minority to ensure they have a strong vote. They have suggested a lower threshold.

But Eguia of MSU said estimating how Black voters will vote in the future is complicated. 

“The commission has taken the work by their consultant Dr. Lisa Handley as if it were ... completely right and infallible,” Eguia said. “And, as a social scientist … we know that it's not that the work is bad, the work is the best you can do, but it's based on very poor data because we don't have good data about primaries.”

Eguia’s research also claimed that six of the 10 maps are incomplete. There are precincts — made up of a range of 13 people to 3,204 residents — that have yet to be assigned to a district, according to his report. 

He said assigning those residents to a district is important, but also an easy fix.

Edward Woods III, the communications director of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday the analysis done by Michigan State University “did not correspond with the data used by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

“We verified and checked again yesterday, and all U.S. Census blocks were assigned.”

Woods added he will share the recommendations made by the university to the hired consultants. 

Monday’s report revealed some of the same concerns raised by African American leaders in the state, who said there should be far more majority-Black districts in the state.

“For those of us in Detroit, this is more than lines on a map,” said Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, in a news release Tuesday. “The decisions made by the commission will have a lasting impact on who represents us for the next decade — and perhaps decades to come.”

Ed Sarpolus, a long-time Michigan pollster and strategist, said the commission’s drafts could be laying “the groundwork for lawsuits.”

“Potentially denying the City of Detroit representation in Congress and the state Legislature implies you do not want Black representation in Congress and the state Legislature,” Sarpolus wrote in an email.

Under the proposals, many of the districts based in Detroit would now stretch far into the suburbs. 

The city would be divided significantly— there would be 10 different districts spanning the 17 miles of Detroit’s northern border, Eight Mile Road, up from four now.

In a statement, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project that studies redistricting told Bridge Michigan the concerns of Black voters in Detroit are valid. 

“Depending on the history of racially polarized voting in these districts, it may be possible for the African American community to elect representatives below the 50 percent threshold, but it may not be probable,” the group said.

Likewise, Voters Not Politicians, a nonprofit that led a grassroots effort to create the citizens redistricting panel, issued a statement late Tuesday reevaluate its approach to the maps because of the concerns.

Rebecca Szetela, an independent from Canton Township and the chair of the commission, told reporters Monday the commission would be willing to change the maps.

“We're certainly not taking the position that these maps are done by any stretch of the imagination,” Szetela said. “So, if major changes need to be made, then I think we're ready and willing to make them.”

Michigan follows a trend

Attorneys who talked to Bridge Michigan said they’ve seen a trend across the country of states “cracking” majority-minority districts by dividing minority voters into multiple districts.

In Texas, Latino groups said they’ll challenge the state’s maps on those groups.

In Virginia, activists said Democrats have tried to create districts where Black voters don’t have to be a majority as long as they can create a coalition with white voters to elect their candidates of choice. 

Steve Lance, the policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, warned about breaking up those majority-minority districts.

“In many cases, these districts were drawn as a result of litigation brought by Black voters or Latino voters, Asian- American voters,” Lance told Bridge Michigan. “And once a district like this is gone, it may be gone. It could require new litigation to bring it back.”

Michael Li, the senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, told Bridge Michigan lowering the number of minority voters in a district is not always bad.

“The reality is that Black voters are very politically cohesive,” Li said. “If they vote cohesively (their candidates) might get elected in districts that are below 50 percent Black. 

“You might actually increase Black representation by doing this.”

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