Expert: Michigan redistricting panel can make maps fairer

David Eggert
Associated Press

Lansing – An expert told Michigan’s redistricting commission Friday that some of its draft congressional maps would be fairer to Democrats than current gerrymandered seats but that legislative districts – especially in the House – would still favor Republicans.

Lisa Handley, a consultant who was hired to advise the 13-member panel, provided it with anticipated partisan-fairness data including measures such as the efficiency gap. The formula determines which party is more efficient at translating votes into victories and can help gauge whether one party has an unfair advantage.

“I would try to get these numbers down,” she said.

The commission, which voters empowered to draw district lines instead of partisan lawmakers, is expected to make changes before voting on draft proposals. Residents will be able to weigh in on those maps at five public hearings from Oct. 18-26.

Handley produced a composite of the results of 13 statewide elections over the last decade and projected that, under a draft Senate map, Democrats would win 52% of the vote but 47% of the seats, resulting in a 20-18 GOP majority.

The efficiency gap would be 8.4%. A score near zero is considered politically neutral.

“That is … above the goal of where the commission would want to be,” Julianne Pastula, the panel’s lawyer, said at its meeting in Troy. “Using these metrics, trying to go back in and make those adjustments to have an impact on these scores, would be advisable.”

The bias would be even greater in the House, where Republicans could take 48% of the vote but 55% of the districts for a 61-49 edge, Handley said.

The Michigan Democratic Party this week raised concerns that the panel of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents might “repeat mistakes of decades past” – when the GOP-led Legislature and Republican governors controlled the process – and gerrymander the maps.

Handley was impressed, though, with some of the draft congressional plans. Under one, Democrats could win 52% of the vote to the GOP’s 48% and hold a 7-6 advantage. Three of the seats would be tossups. Michigan is losing a seat due to the census.

Under the 2018 constitutional amendment creating the commission, districts cannot provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party. But the partisan-fairness data is lower on the list of criteria, behind requirements that districts have equal population, comply with federal law, be geographically contiguous and reflect Michigan’s “diverse population and communities of interest.”

Other factors complicating the process are the Voting Rights Act’s requirements that district boundaries allow minority voters an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice and the fact that Democratic voters are more geographically packed than Republicans.

Commissioner Anthony Eid, an independent, said having the partisan-fairness software is “very useful because I think now we know the work we need to do as a commission in order to get these numbers closer to zero. … We might have to get a little creative, but I think there is a way to do that.”