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Residents sound off on Michigan's sometimes 'mind-boggling' voting districts

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Between its Lansing union hall and the Delta Township GM plant where members work a few miles away, UAW Local 602 finds itself divided between two congressional districts. 

The division between the 7th and 8th Congressional Districts is "mindboggling" at times and could stand to change in the next congressional district map, said Mike Huerta, president of UAW 602, who buys groceries in the 4th Congressional District.

"Sometimes when I want to speak on any of these issues to an elected official, as you can imagine, it can be quite confusing," Huerta told the Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission on Thursday.

"I can't imagine what you're going to go through when you try to compress these districts and make them more equitable," he said.

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission gathers at the Lansing Center ahead of a public hearing Thursday.

The Haslett resident was one of dozens to address the commission Thursday at the sixth of 16 public hearings that will help guide the process of redrawing Michigan voting districts for congressional, and state House and Senate seats. 

During the more than two-hour hearing, residents were called up in an orderly procession by number to speak for two-minute segments on their priorities for the new voting maps. Comments ranged from concerns over rural and urban divides, keeping cultural communities intact and keeping community-spanning services grouped in one district. 

The Lansing region, currently divided in to three separate congressional districts, has been highlighted by experts as an area that could be consolidated or reconfigured in the new maps. The region is represented by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, in the 8th Congressional District; Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, in the 7th District; and Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, in the 4th District. 

Jason Peek was one the first speakers to remark on the geographical distances between residents and their congressional representatives in the current maps. The complaint would become a common theme throughout the night. The Grand Ledge man lives about an hour and a half away from Walberg's hometown in Tipton. 

"We are different communities with different needs," Peek said. 

Susan Anderson asked commissioners to consider drawing a congressional district that encompasses Clinton, Ingham and Eaton counties, noting the communities already share mental health, aging and transportation services.

"Our services are united, and if you are in the same congressional district, it would probably attract more funding," Anderson said. "There wouldn’t be issues of who you talk to or who would take this up.”

Bruce Barland of Dimondale in Eaton County advocated for districts that keep in mind "the out-state flavor of rural Michigan."

"Michigan’s 7th District is mostly rural. Please keep it that way,” Barland said. "Rural Michigan needs state senators and representative who represent the interests of rural Michigan.”

Maria Enriquez, who identified herself as a Mexican American and American Indian, said her Lansing-area community is growing and would like to be reflected in the maps.

"Many of us cannot speak English, but we are voters," Enriquez said.

Rosemarie Hooper, a retired teacher from Shiawassee County, asked the commission to keep intact her Senate district, which usually includes Shiawassee, Eaton and Clinton counties. The area shares the same "small-town values," Hooper said.

"We have small churches, not cathedrals; we have small businesses, not large business. Our children grew up playing together," she said. 

"I would like to see this current arrangement continue because this is our community of interest.”

The hearings are considered listening sessions that will guide the 13-member panel regarding "communities of interest" that should be left intact in districts that also balance equal distributions of population and geographic contiguity. The commission has a goal of collecting 10,000 discrete public comments submitted at the meetings and through a portal on the commission's website

People wait to address Michigan's Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission at the Lansing Center in Lansing on Thursday.

The commission was established via a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018 to replace the former system, which allowed the political party in power every 10 years to redraw the maps. 

Opponents of the old system argued the party-led system resulted in gerrymandered districts that weighed in favor of the controlling party. 

The 13-member panel is made of four Republican members, four Democratic members and five nonpartisan members.

Because of delayed U.S. Census data, the redistricting commission has asked the Michigan Supreme Court to delay the deadline for the finished maps until 72 days after receiving the census data to draw maps, and then another 45 days for public comment before a final vote. 

Under that timeline, the maps for Michigan’s state House, state Senate and congressional districts would be up for a final vote on or before Jan. 25. 

Committee meetings so far have included input from a diverse group of residents expressing their community priorities. The comments have been heart-felt and engaged, said M.C. Rothhorn, a Lansing commission member.

"The overriding themes are, essentially, keep it the same, don’t screw it up; change it, it’s screwed up," said Rothhorn with a laugh. 

He said he was confident the group would be able to handle whatever input it received with the guidance provided by the constitutional language. 

"I think we have a container, if that makes sense, that we’ll make decisions in, all 13 of us, and because were 13, we each will be able to sniff out the political comments and the things that aren’t maybe as genuine as the other ones," Rothhorn said. 

In past meetings, comments have included concerns about keeping school districts together, separating or pairing urban and rural areas, keeping certain watersheds intact or separating cities that are usually bunched together in a region, said Rebecca Szetela, a Canton Township commission member. 

"It’s definitely been a good mix of different opinions," Szetela said. "We are counting on individuals to weigh in and provide us with their own expertise about where they feel appropriate divisions in their community should be.”

The remaining public hearings include: 

June 1: Dort Financial Center, 3501 Lapeer Rd., Flint

June 3: Ford Community & Performing Arts Center, 15801 Michigan Ave., Dearborn

June 8: Suburban Collection Showplace, 46100 Grand River Ave., Novi

June 10: Centerpoint Marriott, 3555 Centerpoint Pkwy, Pontiac

June 15: Village Dome at Fellowship Chapel, 7707 W. Outer Dr., Detroit

June 17: TCF Center, 1 Washington Blvd, Detroit

June 22: Blue Water Convention Center, 800 Harker St., Port Huron

June 24: MRCC Banquet Center, 23401 Mound Rd, Warren

June 29: VanDyke Mortgage Convention Center, 939 Third Street, Muskegon

July 1: DeVos Place, 303 Monroe Ave NW, Grand Rapids

eleblanc@detroitnews.com