Trial to weigh if Michigan legislative maps discriminate against Black voters
- Nine Detroit-area state legislative districts are headed to federal trial over claims the maps violate the Voting Rights Act
- Court panel determined a trial is needed to determine whether new districts dilute Black votes
- Commission has defended legality of its maps, members say they are ‘fully confident’ the districts as drawn will hold up in court
Michigan’s political maps are headed to trial over allegations that several Detroit-area political districts illegally dilute the voting power of Black residents, a U.S. Sixth Circuit Court panel ruled late Tuesday.
In an order by U.S. Circuit Court Judge Raymond Kethledge, the court determined five state House and four state Senate districts named in a lawsuit alleging the state’s citizen redistricting panel violated the Voting Rights Act when it divided metro Detroit’s state legislative districts in a way that reduced the number of majority-Black districts.
The three-judge panel, all appointees of former President George W. Bush, a Republican, found that for nine districts called into question by the 20 metro Detroit voters who brought the suit — state House Districts 1, 7, 10, 12, and 14, and Senate Districts 1, 3, 6, and 8 — it “cannot evaluate the totality of the circumstances when genuine issues of material fact remain” as to whether the new maps dilute Black votes without a trial.
Not all of the districts challenged in the initial suit will head to trial, however: the court rejected similar claims made in four additional House districts and three other Senate districts.
The lines drawn by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission — a panel created in a recent constitutional amendment — were finalized in late 2021 and tested for the first time in the November 2022 elections.
The maps they came up with are as a whole more competitive than previous maps and presented an opportunity for Democrats to make statewide gains — for the first time in decades, Democrats won a slim majority in both the House and Senate.
But many critics of the redistricting process argued the way the commission got there came at the expense of Black candidates in Detroit, who now must compete in districts with one foot in the city and another in neighboring suburbs.
Before last year’s elections, there were 15 Black lawmakers in the state House and five Black lawmakers in the state Senate. Following the 2022 election, there are 14 Black state representatives and three Black state senators.
Rep. Donavan McKinney, a Black Detroit Democrat whose district is one of the nine facing court scrutiny, told reporters Wednesday he would support a redraw of metro Detroit districts, in part because people in Detroit "feel left out" of districts where the majority of votes are concentrated outside the city.
“Voters in Detroit have been disenfranchised, sad to say,” McKinney said. “We need folks that are from those communities.”
A separate state lawsuit making similar claims against the redistricting commission over its handling of metro Detroit legislative and congressional districts was dismissed by the Michigan Supreme Court.
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Before the citizens panel, districts were drawn by the party in power in Lansing — and Republicans who devised the maps have said urban Democrats helped draw safe seats for Black lawmakers at the expense of more competitive districts elsewhere in the state.
Members of the newly created citizens redistricting commission have defended the work, and a majority of its members view the results as a big improvement over current political maps, which were drawn by the GOP-majority state Legislature.
Commissioner Steven T. Lett, a politically independent member of the panel and its legal liaison, said commissioners “are fully confident in our legal team to defend our fair maps at trial.”
In the state legislative maps, the commission split the city among several districts that extend deep into the suburbs in Oakland and Wayne counties. Detroit is spread across eight state Senate districts and 15 state House districts. The maps also slashed the number of legislative districts where an outright majority of residents are Black.
Historically, mapmakers have drawn districts where a minority group makes up at least 50 percent of the population in regions with high minority populations to comply with the Voting Rights Act and increase the likelihood that the minority candidate of choice will be elected.
The commission operated under the theory that the same effect could be reached by unpacking the districts, citing data from previous elections showing significant crossover between Black residents and white residents in the metro Detroit region.
By pairing Black communities with like-minded white voters, the commission’s attorneys argued the new lines could increase the clout of people of color and allow them to elect candidates of their choice without concentrating them into fewer districts.
Some experts counter that the redistricting commission had insufficient primary election data to determine whether minority voters’ picks prevailed in the new configurations.
The pending trial is set to determine whether the commission “went too far” in lowering percentages of Black voters in the Detroit area, Kethledge wrote in the latest order.
The districts slated to head to trial are:
- House District 1: Covers southwest Detroit and River Rouge. Represented by Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit.
- House District 7: Covers portions of Detroit and extends into Oakland County communities like Royal Oak and Ferndale. Represented by Rep. Helena Scott, D-Detroit.
- House District 10: Covers portions of Detroit and extends into Grosse Pointe, Grosse Pointe Farms and Grosse Pointe Woods. Represented by House Speaker Joe Tate, D-Detroit
- House District 12: Covers portions of Wayne and Macomb counties, including portions of Detroit and the cities of Eastpointe and Roseville. Represented by Rep. Kimberly Edwards, D-Detroit
- House District 14: Covers a portion of Detroit and part of Macomb County, including the city of Centerline. Represented by Rep. Donavan McKinney, D-Detroit.
- Senate District 1: Covers southwest Detroit and extends into other Wayne County communities, including River Rouge, Melvindale, Lincoln Park, Ecorse, Allen Park and Taylor. Represented by Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor.
- Senate District 3: Covers portions of Detroit as well as Hamtramck, Hazel Park, Highland Park and Madison Heights, as well as parts of Clawson, Royal Oak, Sterling Heights, Troy and Warren. Represented by Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit.
- Senate District 6: Covers Farmington and Farmington Hills in Oakland County and western Wayne County communities including Livonia and Redford. Represented by Sen. Mary Cavanagh, D-Redford Township.
- Senate District 8: Covers several Oakland County and Detroit communities along Woodward Avenue, including Birmingham, Berkley, most of Royal Oak and Ferndale in Oakland County. The Detroit section extends to the border of Highland Park and southwest to Interstate 96. Represented by Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak.
— Jonathan Oosting contributed
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