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Redistricting experts tell court: We followed law with Michigan maps

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A federal court will decide whether Detroit-area state legislative maps should be redrawn to increase the likelihood of candidates of color getting elected. (Shutterstock)
  • A trial will decide whether Detroit-area legislative districts were drawn with race in mind, deprive Black voters of electing preferred candidates 
  • Commission-hired experts argued Detroit districts needed to be split to make statewide maps more politically fair
  • The trial is the first major test of a commission created by voters in 2018 to wrest redistricting from politicians

KALAMAZOO — Experts hired by Michigan's independent Redistricting Commission defended legislative maps drawn by the group on Monday, telling a federal court that the process was legal, made the districts fairer politically and didn’t dilute the political power of Black voters.

Three federal judges appointed by former Republican President George W. Bush — Raymond Kethledge, Paul Maloney and Janet Neff — are weighing a lawsuit by Detroit-area voters that seeks to redraw districts that extend from the majority Black city to mostly white suburbs.  


The lawsuit is the first major test of lines drawn by the citizen group that was created by voters in 2018 after decades of partisan gerrymandering in Michigan.


The lawsuit contends commissioners violated the 14th Amendment by using race as the predominant factor when drawing the districts, and that they ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act by lowering the Black voting-age population in several districts to such an extent that it is hard to elect Black candidates.

Bruce Adelson, an attorney for the commission, said creating districts that crossed the Wayne County border was an “inescapable necessity” after the City of Detroit’s population fell following the 2020 census.

Hired to ensure the commission adhered to the Voting Rights Act, Adelson said his recommendations and the resulting maps were rooted in data and commissioners weren’t “just picking numbers out of a hat.”

His testimony rebutted that of witnesses last week, including commissioners who testified the process became dominated by hitting racial benchmarks for each district. 

That is “just incorrect,” Adelson testified on Monday, noting that commissioners also sought data on other demographics and voting patterns.

Much of the commission's strategy relied on data from Lisa Handley, a partisan fairness expert. 

She analyzed racial polarization in Detroit and concluded majority-Black districts were not necessary to give Black voters an opportunity to elect candidates of choice. After conducting a similar analysis of 2022 Detroit-area primaries, she said Monday that she reached the same conclusion.

During the process, Handley testified she told commissioners that they "had to pay attention" to racial data but did not mandate a target.

Other experts on Monday testified that lowering the number of majority-Black districts was inevitable for the commission to satisfy requirements that the maps be politically fair.

Jonathan Rodden, a political science professor at Stanford University and a nationally recognized redistricting expert, said Democratic voters tend to cluster in Michigan cities, meaning maps that don't take political trends into account tend to favor Republicans.

Past legislative-drawn maps resulted in gerrymandering that capitalized on these trends, but "unintentional" gerrymandering can also occur if metropolitan areas aren't split among several districts, he said.

He told the court the Detroit-area districts were a key factor in ensuring statewide districts were less partisan.

"There aren't really any other ways to do that," he said, later adding, "Each move you make in Detroit radiates through the rest of the plan."

Districts being challenged include House Districts 1, 7, 10, 12 and 14 and Senate Districts 1, 3, 6 and 8. Judges are also considering whether another four districts, House Districts 8 and 11 and Senate Districts 10 and 11, violated the 14th Amendment. 


Before last year’s elections, there were 15 Black lawmakers in the state House and five in the state Senate. 

After the 2022 election that used the new maps, those numbers fell to 14 in the House and three in the Senate.

The trial, which began Wednesday, could last up to a week and has involved testimony from commissioners, experts, former Detroit lawmakers and others involved in the map-making process.

After it concludes, the three-judge panel will make a determination on whether the commission will have to change the maps to comply with federal law. If so, it’s possible other districts could be impacted in the process.

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