Redistricting commission defends splitting up Black-majority districts in proposed maps

By: - October 18, 2021 4:31 pm

Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission press conference on Oct. 18, 2021 | Screenshot

As the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) gears up for the second round of public comments on the approved 10 proposed maps, they say that their maps remain compliant with the Voting Rights Act (VRA) even without minority-majority districts. 

However, some voting rights activists have vocalized concern that their maps do not include enough Black-majority or minority-majority districts. 

Last week, state Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) said that of the 10 proposed maps, none of them include districts where the voting age population is more than 50% African-American. The current maps drawn by a GOP-majority Legislature in 2011 have 17 districts that are majority Black — two in Congress, five in the state Senate and 10 in the state House.

Black leaders rally in Detroit, call for fairer redistricting maps 

“We understand the fears and we definitely hear the concerns. Some of our commissioners have expressed the same fear. So we understand it,” MICRC Vice Chair M.C. Rothhorn, a Democrat, said during a press conference Monday. “We hear the fears of the people and we’re going to address them and we’re going to do that with data.”

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 lines will go into effect for the 2022 elections 60 days after their publication, and be in effect for the next 10 years.

Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting (MICRC) Chair Rebecca Szetela, an independent, said that even if the maps do not include minority-majority districts the commission can still comply with the VRA. 

The VRA requires districts to fairly represent minority communities.

Szetela referenced an analysis by racial bloc voting expert and director at Rockville, Md.-based Frontier International Electoral Consulting, Lisa Handley, who looked at the voting history in the state, particularly in the metro Detroit area. 

Handley estimated that any district that is at least 40% Black would be likely to elect the Black-preferred candidate and most districts having a population at least 35% Black would, as well.

“If you look at the maps in metro Detroit in particular, you have some districts that are at 80% or 90% African American. What we have done is taken those areas and divided them into multiple districts so that there’s actually more districts where minority voters will be able to elect their candidates of choice,” Szetela said. “This should actually have the effect of increasing the representation among the African-American community, which, number one, complies with the Voting Rights Act, and number two, should actually have a better result for people than the current maps.”

Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR) released Monday a report analyzing the proposed maps and found that the commission’s approach of splitting up Black communities may not be a successful plan and it is based on insufficient voter data that doesn’t take into consideration primary elections. 

“Since primary data is largely unavailable, they need to assess whether their districts are likely to enable preferred candidates to win racially-polarized primary elections. If the MICRC decides that its approach toward compliance with the VRA is indeed optimal, we suggest that it accompany its maps with a justification of how the plans comply with the Voting Rights Act and with the related Equal Protection clause in the U.S. Constitution,” wrote Jon Eguia, the report’s lead author and an MSU professor of economics and political science.

The IPPSR also raised a red flag that more than half of the proposed maps are incomplete and leave some populated geographic areas of Michigan unassigned to any district.

“While the size of the population excluded from any district is small —ranging from 13 inhabitants in one instance to a maximum of 3,204 inhabitants without a district in two plans — it is imperative that these omissions be remedied,” the report reads. 

The MICRC still has time to improve the proposed maps and has five public comment hearings planned across the state throughout October to discuss the 10 proposed maps. 

The Michigan Constitution requires that the panel adopt its final maps by Nov. 1., but a delay in census data earlier this year prompted the commission to push that deadline to Nov. 5. The commission is anticipating final maps to be approved by Dec. 30, but any revisions by the commission would restart the 45-day comment period for a map.


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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered 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.