In a new report evaluating state redistricting efforts, Michigan scored a “B” based on feedback from state and local organizations, advocates and community organizers.
The report by the Coalition Hub for Advancing Redistricting & Grassroots Engagement (CHARGE), used interview survey responses to evaluate each state’s redistricting efforts, including what worked, what did not and what could be done better in the future.
While redistricting was previously performed by the Legislature with the governor signing off on the effort, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 to create the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC). After the 2020 census, the MICRC — composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents — was tasked with creating new maps for the state House of Representatives, state Senate and Congress.
The report praised the new approach for improving partisan fairness in Michigan’s electoral maps, and for extensive public participation in the process.
“I think that we’re seeing the results of the new process, right? We’ve set ourselves up to be the gold standard in the country when it comes to tackling gerrymandering and that has enabled us to advance other policies,” said Kim Murphy-Kovalick, programs director for Voters Nor Politicians, which championed the amendment creating the MICRC.
“A specific way to look at that is like when you look at the vote shares. So 49.9% of Michigan voters back Democrats to Congress and 47.6% prefer Republicans and the seats mirror that exactly,” Murphy-Kovalick said.
Democrats currently hold a slim majority over Republicans in the Legislature, with a 56-54 majority in the House and 20-18 majority in the Senate. Before the 2022 election, Republicans had controlled both houses since 2011.
“The elected officials and their party mirror the voters, which is exactly how it should be. So now we have elected officials who need to be responsive to voters if they hope to stay in office,” Murphy-Kovalick said.
The report also highlighted “unprecedented transparency” in the redistricting process led by the MICRC compared to previous redistricting efforts led by the Legislature.
Prior to the creation of the MICRC there was no transparency, Murphy-Kovalick said, with the intent behind the amendment being to ensure robust public participation and allowing voters to draw a line between their districts and elected officials.
However, MICRC faced transparency concerns of its own. Multiple news outlets filed a lawsuit against the commission for its refusal to release recordings and memos of a closed session held on Oct. 27, 2021. The state Supreme Court later ruled the commission had to release all recordings of its closed sessions alongside seven legal memos.
During the Oct. 27, 2021, meeting, the commission was set to meet with its legal counsel to discuss two memos: “The Voting Rights Act” and “The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and its Influence on Voting.”
While the report listed fairness and participation and transparency as positives, it also noted concerns that the newer maps had diminished Black voting power in Detroit districts.
In the report, Branden Snyder, executive director of Detroit Action, said the MICRC “created ‘competitive’ maps that unpacked Black districts, but depowered Black voters by creating Detroit districts that were joined with the suburbs that were 40% or less Black.”
These maps have faced challenges from members of the Detroit Caucus — a group of Black state lawmakers from metro Detroit — alongside residents from metro Detroit. While the Michigan Supreme Court rejected a suit arguing the new maps disenfranchised Black voters, another case arguing the new districts stifles the power of Black voters and their ability to elect leaders who reflect them is set to go to trial.
In its recommendations for how to improve the State’s redistricting process, the report encouraged the commission to improve its Voting Rights Act compliance training, ensuring districts are drawn to ensure sufficiently concentrated Black communities can elect candidates of their choice.
“I think there are certainly, there are always lessons to be learned, right? But when Voters Not Politicians drafted the redistricting amendment, we developed the criteria for map drawing and the first criteria — and these have to be followed in order — is the requirement that all district maps must comply with the Voting Rights Act,” Murphy-Kovalick said.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority groups listed in the act — which includes Asian languages, Native American languages and Spanish — and protects against vote dilution. However, voting rights advocates argue these protections have been watered down over time by the U.S. Supreme Court.
There is value in the report’s recommendations for additional Voting Rights compliance training for commissioners, Murphy-Kovalick said.
Murphy-Kovalick also spoke in favor of the recommendation that commissioners receive assistance sorting through public input. In its most recent map-making effort, the commission received 30,000 pieces of public comment and testimony to consider in crafting the maps.
Because the 2020 census was delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission had to work on a compressed timeline. Having some help sorting through testimony would be a valuable lesson to take into the next round of redistricting, Murphy-Kovalick said.
This story was originally published by Michigan Advance. Read more here: https://michiganadvance.com/2023/10/16/michigan-earns-high-marks-on-redistricting-in-new-report-with-room-for-improvement/