Michigan redistricting panel advances 10 maps in 'chaotic' process to public hearings

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan's redistricting panel has moved forward its first 10 proposed draft maps for the state's future voting districts, giving an increasingly critical public a glimpse of the districts that could become final in the coming weeks. 

Monday's vote marked the end of more than seven weeks of map drawing by the 13-member citizens commission — a process that has brought intense public scrutiny, frustration with mapping technology, procedural delays and a crash course in drawing maps that balance population, races and partisan fairness. 

The 10 maps included three proposed state House district maps, three state Senate district maps and four congressional district maps that were developed collaboratively during the commission's meetings. 

Over the next two days, commissioners will put the finishing touches on any individual maps they want to propose for the public hearing phase, meaning each of the three categories could increase by 13 proposed individual maps.

To readers: Click on the top left arrow icon in the map to select which proposed map you want to view. 

All of the draft maps — the 10 collaborative ones and any additional individual submissions from commissioners — move to public hearings starting Oct. 20 and running through late October. 

In early November, the commission will hold a few meetings to make any tweaks needed after hearing feedback at public hearings. The commission will vote on the final draft maps Nov. 5 and those will be posted for a 45-day public comment period Nov. 14, ending with a final vote Dec. 30 on one voting map each for the state House, state Senate and Congress. 

If the commission needs to make any changes during that 45-day window, the 45-day clock for public comment will restart — perhaps delaying the finalization of the maps into 2022. 

Scrutiny of the commission has gradually ramped up from Democrats, Republicans and others the closer members get to moving maps through the public hearing and public comment process. The criticism and second-guessing have weighed heavily on individuals specifically picked for their lack of experience with politics and government in general.

"I think chaotic is a good way to describe it," said Tony Daunt, a Republican and executive director of redistricting watchdog group FAIR Maps. "They have been so all over the place with what they’re working on, what their schedule is looking like, when they’re having public hearings.”

With days of public hearings, map changes and votes ahead, it's still unclear what the commissioners' final products will look like, said Adrian Hemond, a Democrat and CEO of the consulting firm Grassroots Midwest in Lansing.

"The scariest part of this is it's still too early to tell, and it's already October," Hemond said. 

10 collaborative maps

The 10 collaborative maps moved forward Monday, each nicknamed after a tree for ease of public identification, came after weeks of deliberation. 

Commission members not only had to ensure the 110 House districts, 38 Senate districts and 13 congressional districts had equal population, they also had to attempt to balance racial representation, communities of interest and partisan fairness across the boundaries. 

This redistricting cycle marks the first time Michigan's voting districts will be redrawn by an independent citizens redistricting commission. In the past, the decennial redrawing was performed by the majority political party, but a ballot committee called Voters Not Politicians successfully got voter approval for a ballot initiative in 2018 that put the responsibility in the hands of independent citizens in a bid to avoid gerrymandered maps that favored one party over another.

Some people attended a Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission hearing in Dearborn in June. Some advocacy groups are arguing more public sessions need to be held for public feedback and digestion of proposed maps for the Michigan State Senate, state House and U.S. House of Representatives.

In terms of population, Michigan's House districts this redistricting cycle each can contain up to 91,612 people with a deviation range of plus or minus 5%. Michigan's Senate districts can contain up to 265,193 people, each with the same 5% deviation range. 

Congressional districts have to be more precise — with a cap of 775,179 people with a federal deviation range of plus or minus 0.5%.  

Under the three state Senate maps moved forward Monday, officials have estimated there would be 19 Democratic seats and 19 Republican seats in one plan, the "Elm" proposal, and a 20-18 split favoring Democrats in the other two, Cherry and Spruce. Republicans currently hold a 22-16 majority.

Under the proposed state House maps, the Peach plan would produce an expected 55-55 split, the Oak a 56-54 division favoring Democrats and the Pine proposal a 56-54 outcome favoring Republicans. The GOP now holds a 58-52 edge. 

Democrats typically receive the majority of votes for all of the districts combined statewide, but Republicans have managed to retain their state House and state Senate majorities. 

All of the proposed congressional district maps — Apple, Cedar, Maple and Juniper — would produce a slight 7-6 Democratic majority, according to estimates produced by the commission's consultants. There is currently a 7-7 split, but Michigan is losing a district because of population growth in other states.

Those maps will advance to the public hearing period, along with any other individual commissioner submissions, for a series of five hearings. The duration of that public hearing phase — initially scheduled to include nine public hearing dates — has been among the decisions critiqued by groups who argued the public should be afforded more time to consider the maps. 

"One of the challenges in this process is just the sheer fact that this final part of drawing maps and weighing in on maps has just been so constricted," said Branden Snyder, executive director for the progressive group Detroit Action.

He spoke alongside leaders of the state NAACP and League of Women Voters during a Monday press conference that urged commissioners to consider Promote the Vote maps and feedback from the voting rights groups. 

Yvonne White, president for the Michigan NAACP, added: "If they’re not listening to comments being made during the second round of the hearings and up until the second round of maps is approved, then they’re not doing their job."

Balancing map priorities

Three qualifications commissioners must consider — compliance with the Voting Rights Act, communities of interest and partisan fairness — have caused the most headaches for the group as the measures can be loosely defined and, at times, in opposition to each other. 

For example, in Detroit, where the voting population is majority Black, commissioners attempted to "unpack" the African American population so it wasn't confined into a few specific districts. 

In 2019, a federal judicial panel found the state's current maps were gerrymandered to "historical proportions" and that the current boundaries diluted the weight of Democratic voters by "packing or cracking" them into certain districts.

Cracking is the process of spreading a party's supporters thinly across districts so their votes count for less and are generally cast for losing candidates. And 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 some Detroit leaders are already complaining this reform commission went too far in an effort to unpack Detroit-area districts. 

Sen. Adam Hollier, a Black Democratic lawmaker from Detroit, plans to hold a Tuesday press conference to urge changes to the maps. 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 new maps. This means there is a higher likelihood of fewer Black lawmakers making it through the primaries. 

"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,” Hollier said in a statement.

The Detroit lawmaker wants to mobilize lawmakers, voters and community leaders to urge commissioners to redraw the Detroit area maps. 

"The commission has done a really good job of responding to the feedback of people who testify," Hollier said. "Now, Detroiters need to stand up.”

Hollier's concerns are likely to continue playing out in the coming days, as the public urges a balance between keeping communities together and avoiding packing in certain districts, said Hemond, the Democratic consultant.

"I don’t think it will be just Detroit," Hemond said. "There’s this tension between creating competitive districts and keeping cities whole.”

Others, including White with the NAACP and Daunt with FAIR Maps, noted the commission has struggled to balance communities of interest and partisan fairness. 

"They seem to be really disregarding the community of interest issue, which is listed No. 3 in terms of priority, and they're sort of jettisoning that in favor of this sort of nebulous idea of partisan fairness," Daunt said, arguing that the consequence is meandering district lines that search for diverse populations to balance out voting numbers.

"They're creating districts that really start to look ridiculous and mimic in many ways the districts Voters Not Politicians used so effectively to pass this proposal in 2018," he said.


Public hearings

Oct. 20, TCF Center, Detroit

Oct. 21, Lansing Center, Lansing

Oct. 22, Venue to be determined, Grand Rapids

Oct. 25, Treetops Resort, Gaylord

Oct. 26, Dort Center, Flint