Voting rights advocates concerned as redistricting panel cuts time for public comment

Groups criticize lack of transparency from independent commission

By: - October 9, 2021 3:17 am

Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission proposed congressional map, Oct. 8, 2021

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) is expected to end the draft mapping process for the state House, state Senate and congressional maps by Tuesday, but voting rights advocates are concerned that the commission is cutting back on time for the public to weigh in. 

The commission had originally planned for nine meetings for public input after the maps are drafted. 

But to allow themselves more time to finish the maps, they cut the number of public hearings to five and shortened the public comment time from two minutes to one minute per person, MICRC spokesperson Ed Woods said. 

Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission proposed state House map, Oct. 8, 2021

“This provides more people with an opportunity to speak and also gives people the opportunity to provide more guidance,” Woods said. “Both of those decisions were designed to have more time for mapping, which is really based upon citizen input.”

However, voting rights advocates believe this change limits Michiganders’ opportunities to speak to the commission directly. 

“As the time crunch impacts their work, I still think hearing from the people should take precedence,” said Michael Davis, the redistricting campaign director for Promote the Vote. 

The 13-member panel, composed of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents, was formed after voters passed a 2018 state constitutional measure. Prior to that, the Legislature was in charge of redistricting, with the governor signing off on maps. 

The new legislative district lines will go into effect for the 2022 elections and be in effect for the next 10 years

Despite Michigan’s constitution requiring that the commission adopt its final maps by Nov. 1, the commission is planning to propose those maps by Nov. 5, due to a delay in census data earlier this year.

Commissioners anticipate approving final maps by Dec. 30, but if the panel were to make any revisions, the 45-day public comment period would start over. Many experts also expect additional lawsuits that could further slow down the process.

Quentin Turner, program director for the good government group Common Cause of Michigan, also raised concern that the entire metro Detroit area has only one public hearing day, despite nearly 50% of the state’s population living there. 

“It’s unfortunate that the commission that has been fervent for public comment and has said this is essential and a very important part of the work they’re doing has in turn reduced the number of opportunities that the public has to comment,” Turner said. 

Additionally, special interest groups, such as Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) Vote Michigan, Detroit Action and the League of Women Voters of Michigan, have spoken out about concerns around the commission complying with the Voting Rights Act (VRA), unpacking the current gerrymandered districts and prioritizing communities of interest. 

The VRA requires districts to fairly represent minority communities.

“Our current district maps are not only politically gerrymandered; they’re racially gerrymandered,” said Branden Snyder, executive director for Detroit Action. “Creating VRA districts to help ensure Michigan’s communities of color can choose leaders that will reflect their communities and that their voices can truly be heard.” 

Last week, the commission received a partisan fairness analysis report from racial bloc voting expert and director at Rockville, Md.-based Frontier International Electoral Consulting, Lisa Handley,. She found that the draft maps slightly favored Republicans over Democrats. However, the draft plans displayed less partisan advantage than anticipated. 

Handley’s analysis found that the state House draft map gives Republicans a 9.2% advantage, the state Senate draft map gives Republicans a 6.9% advantage and the congressional map gives Democrats a 1.2% advantage.

These draft maps are consistently being adjusted by the commissioners, who are working toward achieving partisan fairness and VRA compliance, especially in metro Detroit, Downriver and West Michigan. 

“We’re hoping that they can systematically go through and make the changes that they need to do to achieve that partisan fairness, which many people have pointed out are not really in their maps right now,” said Voters Not Politicians (VNP) Executive Director Nancy Wang during a press conference last week. 

Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission proposed state Senate map, Oct. 8, 2021

VNP spearheaded the ballot measure for the redistricting commission three years ago.

Progress Michigan Executive Director Lonnie Scott raised a red flag Thursday when the commission demanded thousands of dollars for a public records request for communications between commissioners and outside groups and individuals.

After the commission’s decision to hire a law firm with Republican ties, Washington, D.C.-based firm BakerHostetler, Progress Michigan submitted the Freedom of Information Act request. The commission said the request would cost Progress Michigan nearly $31,000.

“We’ve seen these tactics used before to dissuade the public from accessing what should be publicly available information but usually by shady public officials like Bill Schuette, not a new commission founded on bringing transparency to the process of redistricting,” Scott said. “As they head into the final stretches of drawing Michigan’s new maps, we strongly urge the commission to waive these fees and fully open their process and records to the people of Michigan.”

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

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