Column: Here’s what we’ve learned from Michigan’s independent redistricting process

A protestor demonstrates during a Dec. 12, 2018, rally in the Capitol | Ken Coleman

Michigan residents recently concluded a historic experiment in representative democracy. For the first time, the drawing of voting districts that will shape our representation in Washington, D.C., and Lansing for an entire decade was not led by self-interested politicians. 

Thanks to the hard work of Voters Not Politicians and their allies to pass a redistricting reform ballot initiative in 2018, a new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission drew Michigan’s congressional, state Senate and state House districts. With the primary season about to begin, this is a good time to assess how the commission’s work went. 

In other states in which politicians continue to draw voting maps, legislators in the majority party, such as Democrats in Illinois, or Republicans in Ohio or North Carolina, drew districts to favor their party and without regard to fair representation of their states’ communities. 

In states where politicians and political operatives are in charge, public hearings are often a smokescreen hiding a partisan process in which public input is largely ignored. This used to happen in Michigan as well, but thanks to Michigan’s recent redistricting reform, the people now have a venue where their perspectives matter and they can shape their own representation. 

Using the leading measures to determine partisan fairness and how each party’s votes will translate to seats won, the commission’s maps that will go into effect for the first time this year are a huge improvement over previous maps. By most popularly accepted measures of partisan fairness, the new congressional, Senate, and House districts are fair toward every political party.

In addition to partisan gerrymandering, past maps drawn by legislators featured a second undemocratic defect: the “packing” of Black voters. The purpose of packing is to place a group of voters into as few districts as possible and give them much larger majorities in those districts than they need to elect their preferred candidate. This limits the targeted group’s influence to just those handful of districts while preventing them from swaying the results in any other district. 

The new congressional and state House maps effectively reverse that injustice by distributing Black voters more evenly and giving them influence over a number of districts that makes more sense considering their population totals.

Unfortunately, the commission’s focus on unpacking Black voters resulted in some misfires in the Senate map. Some Black communities that sought to be kept together in one Senate district for stronger representation were split. Regretfully, the commission could not agree on changes to the Senate map based on this feedback, and as a result, the Senate map adopted by the commission calls into question the ability of Black Michiganders to elect Michigan senators of their choice.

The new citizen-led redistricting process involves a commission consisting of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents. Michigan’s constitution prohibits them from being political insiders and requires them to conduct business in public hearings. 

The result proved to be what one might expect: inspiring, messy, imperfect and filled with impassioned debate about strongly held views. What it did not include was partisan operatives working behind closed doors to preordain the results of our elections for 10 years. As Court cases resolve, we will learn if all three of these maps stand, or whether one or some of them need to be revised to provide fair representation for our communities, as the many people who participated in public hearings hoped. 

After the next census and every census after that, we will be able to count on the fact that a new Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will take what we learn, listen to public input and act in good faith to draw maps that prioritize the interests of the public over the interests of politicians.

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Jon X. Eguia
Jon X. Eguia

Jon X. Eguia is a Professor of Economics and (by courtesy) of Political Science at Michigan State University.

Quentin Turner
Quentin Turner

Quentin Turner is Program Director of Common Cause Michigan.