Redistricting panel will decide which Mich. U.S. House seat to kill

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Volunteers deliver petitions with 400,000 signatures to the Secretary of State's office in Lansing on Dec 18, 2017, aiming to alter the way legislative districts are drawn in Michigan. Proposal 2, adopted this month, takes redistricting authority from state lawmakers and gives it to an independent, 13-member commission.

A new redistricting commission is expected to decide in the next three years which part of Michigan will lose a U.S. House seat as it considers how to redraw political boundaries statewide.

The Constitution requires that seats in the U.S. House of Representatives be reapportioned among the states every 10 years according to the results of the census. 

Michigan has been losing political clout in the House for decades and remains on track to lose another seat because the state's population is growing slowly compared with other states.

Michigan would go from having 14 representatives in the U.S. House to 13 — down from 19 representatives in 1970. 

It's unclear which district would be dissolved, though several observers suggested it will probably come out of southeast Michigan because that's where the most districts and people are clustered.

Southeast Michigan also lost a seat in both 2000 and 2010 after redistricting, forcing political battles each time in a new consolidated district.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Hansen Clarke of Detroit and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township faced off in 2012, and Democratic U.S. Reps. John Dingell of Dearborn and Lynn Rivers of Ann Arbor battled in 2002.

Republicans were in charge of the last two redistricting cycles in Michigan. 

When partisans look at a map to eliminate a district, it tends to be a political calculation to take a seat from the rival party, said Dave Daley, author of the 2016 book, "Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy."

"It remains to be seen where that district would come from in 2022, especially if you're starting over," Daley said. 

"Members of the commission have free rein to start a map from scratch without regard for incumbency or partisan advantage, which is an amazing opportunity if you're interested in fairer representation." 

Political districts in Michigan are supposed to be more "geographically compact and contiguous" under new criteria adopted by voters this month in a ballot measure.  

The new maps also shall not provide "disproportionate advantage" to political parties or candidates. 

"Given that we're going to have this independent redistricting commission, I would guess it won't be an overtly political act of targeting a Republican or Democratic district," said Eric Lupher, president of the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Lupher also anticipates the redistricted maps won't resemble the "classic" gerrymander of the S-shaped 14th District or the "backward question mark" shape of the 11th District.

A report by his group this year found Michigan's political maps failed several advanced tests of partisan neutrality. 

Also, email correspondence released this year as part of federal litigation over gerrymandering showed Michigan party officials in 2011 attempted to diminish voters of the rival party (Democrats) by "cracking and packing" them into a smaller number of winnable districts. 

Republicans who drew the current boundaries have argued that existing laws already limit manipulation. They also say the new commission would allow Democrats to gain an advantage under the guise of nonpartisanship after failing to win races at the ballot box.

Lupher expects Michigan will retain two majority African-American congressional districts among its 13 districts in 2022 to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.

That law prohibits states from dividing minority groups or packing them in larger communities to dilute their voting power, he said. 

Driving political boundaries

Daley drove the entire boundary line of Michigan's snaking 14th District for his book. 

The district winds from Pontiac in the north, Farmington Hills to the west, Detroit to the south and captures the Grosse Pointes in the east.

"I started at 8 in the morning and went until 10 at night. It was a long day of driving some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the country," Daley said. 

The 14th District was designed to "pack" as many Democrats into as few congressional districts as possible, Daley said, thereby "bleaching" the surrounding districts to maximize the number of white people likely to elect Republicans. 

"There were times on my tour where I could take four left turns and come in and out of the 14th District three different times and watch the property values go from a half-million dollars down to $8,500," Daley said.

"If you have a commission doing this, you are less likely to see such surgical shenanigans." 

Daley acknowledged that Michigan's geography means it won't have 13 or 14 competitive seats for the U.S. House. For example, GOP-leaning parts of the state like the Upper Peninsula and West Michigan are likely to remain "red." 

"The five to six districts now that surround Detroit would look very different if drawn by a commission and would probably yield more competitive results," Daley said. 

Redistricting commission

A commission of citizens will draw the next set of maps after voters in November approved Proposal 2, making Michigan one of five states to strip redistricting authority from politicians this year in efforts to combat partisan gerrymandering. 

North Carolina Republican state Sens. Dan Soucek, left, and Brent Jackson review historical maps during the Senate Redistricting Committee in 2016.

For the first time, the process of redrawing boundaries within the state will be a public one. In the past, deals have been brokered behind closed doors. 

"It would be nice to have turnover based on voting, rather than turnover based on retirement or death," said demographer Kurt Metzger, the mayor of Pleasant Ridge who hopes to serve on the new commission. 

"In gerrymandered districts, you win and it's your job for life." 

Experts predict that Michigan's new maps — drawn under a mandate to keep communities together — will have more geographically compact districts and lead to more competitive races. 

Critics have argued that the commission could see runaway costs and fear its structure gives too much oversight to a partisan secretary of state, who is set to be Democrat Jocelyn Benson in 2021.

But the ballot measure drew support from both Republican and Democratic parts of the state, passing with over 61 percent of the vote. 

"It's a strong reform. ... People are really excited about this nationally just because no one thought you could never get anything like this done in Michigan," said Michael Li, senior redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.

"This is a wake-up call for a lot of the country that there's a lot of citizen energy around this and a desire to make the system better, including in some unexpected places." 

The fall midterm elections demonstrated that that commission- and court-drawn seats are often more competitive, compared with those drawn by single-party legislatures, Li said. 

More than 70 percent of the U.S. House seats won by Democrats and all of the House seats picked up by Republicans on Nov. 6 were in districts drawn either by commissions or courts, he said. 

"When you keep communities together, if there's a move toward one party or another, that can manifest itself in electoral outcomes," Li said. 

Michigan saw two exceptions to this trend with the election of Oakland County Democrats Elissa Slotkin of Holly and Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills in districts drawn by the Republican-led state Legislature in 2011. 

Studies of California's redistricting effort also suggest that commission-drawn maps enable more women, people of color and younger candidates to run, despite not always having access to "big money," Li said. 

That's because congressional districts that are more community-based may overlap with local political boundaries where such candidates could benefit from name recognition and more centralized campaigns, he said.

Metzger, who founded the firm Data Driven Detroit, said more competitive districts could produce stronger candidates from both parties who provide more discussion of the issues in Michigan. 

"Now, people sit home and say, 'Oh, well, we know what's going to happen,'" Metzger said. 

"The more competitive elections you have, the greater chance you have of people coming out and generating excitement, thinking they have a chance to make a difference by voting."