Michigan redistricting panel wraps adoption of state House, Senate, congressional maps

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan's Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission adopted three plans Tuesday for the voting districts that will govern Michigan's 13 congressional districts, 38 state Senate seats and 110 state House seats for the next decade. 

Commissioners — after months of public hearings, map drawing and discussion — applauded after each vote. The commission mustered a nine-member coalition supporting the "Linden" Senate map, 11 members supporting the "Hickory" House map and an eight-member group supporting the "Chestnut" congressional map.

Each vote by the 13-member panel included the constitutionally required "2-2-2" majority, or support from two Democratic members, two Republicans and two Independents. No plan required more than one vote to reach a majority.

Tuesday’s vote marks the commission's first adoption of maps since it was created via a ballot initiative in 2018. Prior to that, the maps were drawn by the political party in power.

"We did the best job we could with the time and everything else we were given," said Commissioner Cynthia Orton, a Republican on the panel. "What could be improved is what will be improved next time. We started with a lot of unknowns. It had never been done before in Michigan, and the next commission will have the benefit of us having done this before."

Several U.S. House, state Senate and state House candidates and incumbents began announcing where they would run immediately after the adoption of the maps Tuesday.

But commissioners are expecting to encounter legal challenges to the maps in the coming weeks. Both the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party and the Michigan Republican Party said Tuesday they were exploring their legal options.

"We were very careful about following our constitutional criteria and making sure not only that we were compliant with it, but that we could document our thought process," said Commissioner Rebecca Szetela, an independent on the commission. "Anything can happen with the court. I would certainly hope that they will uphold our maps. If they do not, then we will go back to the drawing board and we will fix them."

Each of the maps selected — Linden, Hickory and Chestnut — were brought up in the majority of the public comments made Tuesday as the preferred maps, though there are still serious concerns among many groups watching the process.

Commissioners selected Michigan tree names for several of the draft maps this fall to differentiate more easily among the different plans.

The new maps

The congressional Chestnut map, commissioners argued, addressed some requested changes from early in the public comment period, including some tweaks in west Michigan, efforts to keep the Midland area mostly whole, and slightly higher Black voting age population percentages in Metro Detroit districts.

"I see it as kind of a compromise between all the plans we have," said Commissioner Anthony Eid, an independent, ahead of the vote.

Commissioner Steven Lett, another independent, noted: "The sentiment from the public was for Chestnut really without many reservations at all."

Unlike other congressional maps the commission had to choose from, Chestnut was set apart by its inclusion of Grand Rapids and Muskegon in the same district, its grouping of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo and its ability to keep Jackson County whole, instead of breaking off part of the county into an Ann Arbor area district. 

The map also moves South Lyon and part of Milford into a Lansing area district.

The Chestnut congressional map includes at least three swing districts, including one west Michigan district that features Grand Rapids and Muskegon, a Lansing area district and a Metro Detroit district that includes Warren, Sterling Heights and Rochester Hills. 

The Linden Senate map appeared to be the most popular among public comments voiced to the commission and reflected the commission's preference for maps drafted in public and collaboratively by the panel. 

"I’m a big firm believer in the collaborative process we went through," said Commissioner Dustin Witjes, a Democratic member of the commission. 

Linden differed from other proposed maps in its configuration of districts in the Ann Arbor area. The Linden map broke up Ann Arbor in a split that separated the northwest segment from the southeast while others split up the city in differing formations.

The Hickory House map has an efficiency gap — a measure of wasted votes — of 4.3% favoring Republicans and is expected to create districts that could produce 57 Democratic seats and 53 Republican seats. After the 2020 election, Michigan House Republicans had a 58-52 majority in the House.

The Chestnut congressional map has an efficiency gap of 0.6% favoring Republicans and will create districts that could yield seven Democratic seats and six Republican seats. Michigan's U.S. House delegation currently is comprised of seven Republicans and seven Democrats, but the state will lose a seat in 2022 because of population loss.

The Linden Senate map has an efficiency gap of 3.3% favoring Republicans and is expected to create districts that could yield 20 Democratic seats and 18 Republican seats. Senate Republicans currently have a 22-16 majority.

The panel spent much of Tuesday morning ironing out the process they'd follow for the final vote and listening to continued objections to the proposed maps during a more than hour-long public comment period. 

After extensive discussion regarding the possibility of making changes to the maps, the commission voted Tuesday to bar any changes to the plans amid legal ambiguity over whether those changes would trigger another 45-day public comment period and delay any approval into February.

What's next 

The commission is expecting legal challenges to the maps to be filed in the coming weeks. That litigation could uphold the adopted maps, could send them back to the commission for changes or could prompt the courts to make changes. If there are no successful legal challenges to the maps, they will stand until they are reviewed by a new commission in 10 years.

Groups have been vocal about their exploration of litigation in relation to the maps. 

Tuesday's vote was preceded by a Detroit press conference with Detroit pastors and politicians urging the commission to make changes to avoid dilution of the Black vote. 

"The city of Detroit right now is at a precipice," said state Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, during a news conference at the Shrine of the Black Madonna on Linwood. "We're talking about whether or not it will continue to have representatives that are from this community."

In some of the maps, the commission decreased the number of majority-Black districts in the proposed maps by stretching Detroit districts into the suburbs in an effort to increase partisan fairness and "unpack" past efforts to isolate the Democratic vote to certain districts. But Detroit leaders have argued the commission did too much to unpack the Detroit area and have damaged minority voters' chances of getting their preferred candidate through primary elections.

The commission's consultants have repeatedly said there are other ways to comply with Voting Rights Act requirements than setting an arbitrary percentage of Black voting age population with which the districts must comply. 

Despite their experts' opinions, some commissioners remained wary of the districts in Detroit. Commissioner Brittni Kellom, a Detroit Democrat, became emotional Tuesday when speaking of the continued anger over the Detroit districts. 

"I know Black people all over, but particularly in Detroit, will continue, unfortunately, to do what they need to do to survive. Which is to galvanize and be active and to do what they need to do," Kellom said. "Do I wish that there was more time to get it right? Absolutely.”

Commissioners Cynthia Orton, left, and Janice Vallette, right, listen to public comment at the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission meeting in Lansing on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.

Earlier Tuesday, Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th District Democratic Party Organization and a Wayne County Commissioner representing Detroit's east side, threatened litigation "if necessary" over the commission's proposed congressional district maps.

"Michigan needs and deserves a congressional and state legislative delegation. That represents all the people of Michigan," Kinloch said in a Tuesday statement. "That's the only way to ensure every voice is heard. These current congressional maps are a serious step backwards, limiting the voice of African Americans, and that is unacceptable."

The Michigan Republican Party on Tuesday said it was "evaluating all options to take steps necessary to defend the voices silenced by this commission."

Democratic groups weren't quick to criticize the maps. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, now chairman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, praised the commission's work as a "success" that shows independent commissions can "produce a fair result."

"The commission process can be messy — it requires scrutiny, public input, accountability from diverse communities seeking equal representation, and well-balanced debate," Holder wrote in a statement. "No one gets everything they want, and everyone has to compromise. But that is how a commission is supposed to work and, in turn, it is a reflection of how American democracy should function."

Public weighs in

More than 50 individuals addressed the commission at the start of Tuesday's meeting and, in public comment, a few different maps emerged as largely preferred by the public: the Hickory map for the state House districts, Linden for the state Senate map and Birch or Chestnut for congressional districts. 

The 50 public comments Tuesday join roughly 25,000 others that have been submitted to the commission since the start of the redistricting process. 

Many of those commenting Tuesday asked the commission to hold off and make changes to maps, especially the state House proposed plans. One commenter called Hickory "the best of the worst" choices.

"The evidence shows that Michigan is still racially segregated," said NAACP Lansing branch President Bill Kopich, noting four Michigan counties contain a majority of Michigan's Black population. "There’s no way in the world that you’ll be able to represent them by splitting them up into counties they have no representation in.

"I hope you will consider this in your discussions and deliberations to put forth a method that would better represent people of color."

Similar to Kellom, Szetela also expressed concern over some of the majority-minority districts. She said she trusted the new maps were in compliance with federal law but also worried there was insufficient primary election data to ensure Black Detroit voters would be able to get a preferred candidate through a primary.

"I remain concerned about that," Szetela said. "Unfortunately, with this process being so data-driven, there just is an absence of data that we can analyze to determine that."


Staff Writers James David Dickson and Craig Mauger contributed.