Redistricting panel defends unpacked Detroit districts ahead of public hearings

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Members of Michigan's Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission defended proposed draft maps Monday that discarded majority-minority districts in favor of spreading minority concentrations across districts. 

But commission members also told the media in a virtual press conference that the maps are far from finished and voter turnout data has yet to be examined that could affect the final makeup of the controversial Detroit-area districts.

"We’re certainly not taking the position that these maps are done by any stretch of the imagination," said Rebecca Szetela, chairwoman for the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission and a non-affiliated or independent representative.

The commission will begin a series of five public hearings Wednesday to hear feedback on 22 proposed draft maps — 10 collaborative maps and 12 drawn by individual commission members — for state House, state Senate and Congress. 

From left, Commissioners Douglas Clark, Anthony Eid, Brittni Kellom and Rebecca Szetela listen to members of the public speaking at the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission meeting for public comments at the TCF Center in Detroit on June 17, 2021.

The public hearings will wrap Oct. 26, after which commission members will consider any changes to the maps based on feedback and vote Nov. 5 on maps to advance to public comment.

The maps will be posted publicly Nov. 14, starting a 45-day public comment period that will conclude Dec. 30 with a final vote on one map each for the state House, state Senate and Congress. 

Public reaction to the maps so far has been mixed. Some have criticized the breakup of counties and other municipal boundaries, while others have worried about the pitting of incumbents drawn into the same districts. 

But some of the strongest criticism so far has rotated around Detroit-area districts that were redrawn to spread concentrations of Black residents across districts. The commission did so on the advice of their consultants to undo "packing" under past Republican-leaning map plans.

Packing is a process in which map drawers concentrate a party's supporters into certain, limited districts so their influence is contained and doesn't spread outside those areas.

But several Black lawmakers last week criticized the commission's efforts to "unpack" Detroit, arguing that the commission's efforts to unpack by combining majority Black areas in Detroit with suburbs would harm Black candidates' chances of winning.

Where currently there are 17 majority Black districts in Michigan across the 161 state House, state Senate and congressional districts, there are none under the proposed collaborative maps.

"They drew the city of Detroit into districts that Detroiters will not win and Black people will not win because a majority of the voter base are in suburban communities, particularly in primaries where Democratic races are decided,” Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, said last week.

The Michigan Democratic Party on Monday reiterated Hollier's message. 

“I am extremely proud of the diversity of our current delegation," Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lavora Barnes said in a statement. "We have fought hard to be heard. It would be a mistake for the MICRC to turn back the hands of time and diminish Michiganders’ ability to elect Black and Brown voices."

Commission member M.C. Rothhorn, a Democrat, assured reporters Monday that he was aware of the concerns and fears expressed about the Detroit area districts. The commission expects to receive voter turnout data that could help to better understand the issue, and determine whether the maps should remain as they are, he said. 

Rothhorn, Szetela and Commissioner Doug Clark, a Republican, maintained their trust in the advice of their voting rights and partisan fairness experts about the Detroit-area districts. 

"That is why it’s under 50%," Rothhorn said. "They believe and we believe it is the best process to help minorities elect their candidates of choice.”

The Voting Rights Act does not require the commission to maintain majority-minority districts, Szetela said.

"If you look at the current maps in Metro Detroit in particular, you have some districts that are 80, 85, in some cases 90% African American and what we have done is taken those areas and divided them into multiple districts so that there’s are actually more districts where minority voters will be able to elect their candidate of choice," Szetela said.

"It should actually have the effect of increasing the representation among African American community.”

Public hearing schedule

All public hearings run from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., with a break between 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Wednesday, TCF Center, Detroit

Thursday, Lansing Center, Lansing

Friday, DeVos Place, Steelcase Ballroom, Grand Rapids

Oct. 25, Treetops Resort, Gaylord

Oct. 26, Dort Center, Flint