Voters Not Politicians to redistricting panel: Release Voting Rights Act memos
LANSING — The group behind the creation of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is asking the panel to release secret voting rights memos used to draw majority-minority districts in the state.
Nancy Wang, the executive director of Voters Not Politicians, told Bridge Michigan in a statement the commission should make the documents public.
“Michigan voters amended our Constitution to bring redistricting out into the open,” Wang said in an email Wednesday. “We urge the MICRC to release the two Voting Rights Act memos and to keep their deliberations and decision making open to the public.”
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The commission is scheduled to discuss whether to release the documents Thursday in Lansing.
The memos, titled “Voting Rights Act” and “The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and its Influence on Voting,” were used by commissioners to follow through with maps that reduce the number of state House, Senate and congressional districts in which minorities are the majority.
Both memos were discussed behind closed doors during an Oct. 27 meeting in East Lansing. Attorneys for the commission have cited attorney-client privilege as the reason to not release the documents.
They have held on to that reasoning despite an unbinding opinion from the Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel in which she said the discussion of the memos should have happened at an open meeting.
Nessel added that “presuming the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission’s October 27, 2021, closed session was held to discuss memoranda that provided Commission members with certain legal parameters and historical context that should be considered in developing, drafting, and adopting the redistricting plans, then the memoranda must be disclosed under (the Michigan Constitution).”
The 13-member panel was created in 2018 after voters changed the state constitution to replace a system that allowed parties controlling the Legislature to draft legislative districts largely in secret. The districts are redrawn every decade, and the process has led to some of the most Republican gerrymandered maps in the nation.
News organizations, including Bridge Michigan, Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, and the Michigan Press Association have all asked the commission to release the memos.
The panel has declined multiple Freedom of Information Act requests by the news outlets. Bridge Michigan received a notice on Wednesday from the commission General Counsel Julianne Pastula in which she denied a request for the memos.
But on Thursday, commissioners are scheduled to meet in Lansing to discuss the attorney general opinion, and an advisory issued by the commission’s lawyers.
The letter, emailed to commissioners Tuesday, said “it would be unwise and detrimental to the MICRC and Commissioners to acquiesce at this juncture,” and recommended keeping the memos secret.
Commissioner Dustin Witjes, a Democrat from Ypsilanti, has asked the panel to discuss the matter. However, in an interview with Bridge Tuesday evening, he declined to say whether he will vote for the release of the documents.
Katie Fahey, the founder of Voters Not Politicians, told Bridge Michigan she is not significantly concerned about the commission’s behavior because it has only happened once.
But, Fahey said she hopes the commission can at least “come out and summarize the memo and like, give us transparency.”
She added the Constitution says commissioners have to explain why they drew districts the way they did.
“I think it's very understandable that people have their doubts about the commission,” Fahey said. “I think I'm not as panicky because there are, we tried to think of backups for how we get accountability in this process.”
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