Dems, Republicans slam redistricting panel over closed session on Voting Rights Act

By: - October 28, 2021 9:33 am

Members of Local 333, a union representing plumbers, pipefitters, welders, and HVAC service techs, attend an Oct. 21 redistricting hearing in Lansing. Photo by Anna Gustafson

Updated, 2:58 p.m., 10/28/21 with letter from senators seeking formal legal opinion from Attorney General Dana Nessel

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is facing some backlash after hosting a closed meeting Wednesday to discuss the Voting Rights Act (VRA). 

The MICRC postponed Wednesday’s meeting in East Lansing for over two hours after receiving a death threat through email. MICRC spokesperson Edward Woods said the threat was not directed at any specific member of the commission, but toward the commission as a whole. 

The Michigan State Police is investigating the threat. 

Redistricting commission postpones meeting due to death threat

The MICRC went into a closed meeting to discuss the VRA with the commission’s general counsel, Julianne Pastula, and voting rights lawyer Bruce Adelson and Michigan’s history of discrimination and voting.

Woods said the group is allowed to go into closed sessions to speak with an attorney for legal advice and is protected by the Open Meetings Act (OMA). The MICRC is not currently facing any litigation. 

Attorney Steve Liedel, who served as legal counsel to Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, disagrees with Woods. Liedel said the MICRC likely violated both the constitution and the OMA.

“The commission ignored the clear language in the Constitution that says that all of their business must be conducted in public and in an open meeting and that any meeting has to be broadcast in real time. And that portion of the meeting, so there is an issue under the Constitution,” Liedel said. “And then there is an issue under the Open Meeting Act. The Open Meetings Act permits consultation with an attorney, but it has to relate to specific litigation and specific litigation would have to have a negative financial impact on the public.”

Sens. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) and Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) asked Attorney General Dana Nessel Thursday for a formal legal opinion on the constitutionality of the closed session.

“Ensuring the level of transparency guaranteed by the Constitution is integral to maintaining the public’s confidence in the commission’s work, which of course includes deliberations on the fundamentally important role of the Voting Rights Act in the redistricting process,” McBroom and Irwin wrote in their letter to Nessel.

The MICRC was designed to be a transparent and fair way to create new districts in the state after years of gerrymandered districts created by the Legislature. The 13-member panel, composed of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents, was formed after a 2018 state constitutional measure passed.

Gustavo Portela, Michigan Republican Party spokesperson, said the MICRC entered a “new low” on Wednesday.

“Michiganders were sold on a commission that would be transparent and accountable in the creation of fair state and federal districts under the constitution,” said Portela. “It’s another gut punch for Michigan voters who were lied to about how this commission would conduct its business and create fair maps for which Michiganders could choose their representation in Lansing and in Washington, D.C.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said the closed meeting shut out the public, noting Black and Brown voters have called for maps that represent their communities more fairly.

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes | Andrew Roth

“Last week, hundreds of people stood up in Detroit during the MICRC’s first public hearing demanding changes to the maps to ensure fair representation for Black and Brown voters,” she said in a statement. We have yet to hear the Commission’s debrief on the public hearings. Instead of having an open and transparent discussion, the Commission retreated behind closed doors to discuss VRA. This process cannot move forward until the Commission addresses what they’ve heard from the public, what was discussed in closed session, and how they plan to fix the maps accordingly.”

Voters Not Politicians, the organization that led the 2018 ballot proposal to create the MICRC, joined the criticism over the commission’s decision to go into a closed session. 

“The intent was to bring redistricting out into the open through a fair, impartial, and transparent process. Redistricting business includes deliberating issues arising under the Voting Rights Act,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians.

After a public hearing in Detroit on Oct. 20, Department of Civil Rights Executive Director John E. Johnson Jr. said the MICRC’s approved proposed maps violate the VRA, which requires districts to fairly represent minority communities.

During a press conference Wednesday night, Pastula said the minutes from the closed session were protected under attorney-client privilege and would likely not be released to the public.

It’s another gut punch for Michigan voters who were lied to about how this commission would conduct its business and create fair maps for which Michiganders could choose their representation in Lansing and in Washington, D.C.

– Michigan Republican Party spokesperson Gustavo Portela

Liedel isn’t convinced that the commission’s discussion about Michigan’s history of discrimination would be protected under attorney-client privilege. 

“Was that memo prepared by an attorney? And if not, how can you claim an exemption due to attorney-client privilege for your discussion in closed session? I’m having a hard time following that, because they clearly stated that they were two memos. One was from the voting rights attorney and the other from their consultant on historical patterns of race-based discrimination in Michigan,” Liedel said. 

Woods denies that the MICRC violated the Constitution or OMA and doesn’t believe the closed session undermines the commission’s transparent process. 

“There’s no ding on the reputation of the commission in terms of its ability to be open and transparent. And to suggest that is just not fair,” Woods said. 

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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.