Redistricting draft maps violate Voting Rights Act, civil rights director says

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Detroit — An independent redistricting commission's draft maps violate the Voting Rights Act, Michigan Civil Rights Department Executive Director John Johnson Jr. said during a Wednesday hearing where most speakers said the proposals don't give Detroit fair representation.

The proposed maps for the state House, state Senate and U.S. House fail to preserve the ability for minority voters to have a voice in government, argued Johnson, who is a member of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's cabinet.

"They dilute minority-majority districts and strip the ability for a minority voter to elect legislative representatives who reflect their community and affect any meaningful opportunity to impact public policy and lawmaking," he said. 

Protesters hold up signs before Michigan's redistricting commission holds a hearing Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021 at the TCF Center in Detroit on proposed maps for state House, state Senate and U.S. House. The demonstrators urged the commission to create more Black majority districts instead of spreading out African-American voters in a bid to restore partisan fairness.

Other commentators argued the Michigan Independent Citizen's Redistricting Commission's proposed maps dilute the voting power of Detroiters by putting residents of the overwhelmingly Black city into districts with nearby Oakland and Macomb county suburbs. They urged commissioners to create districts that are majority Black and majority Detroit residents to protect city residents' ability to elect people who represent their needs.

"The only way that you can fully represent Detroiters is if you’re here amongst Detroiters," Tonjia Ray said. "If we have representation that looks like us, lives with us, they understand what we go through as Detroiters, they can be a better voice for us at the table when it comes to issues and concerns for us as Detroiters."

Take northeast Detroit as an example, said Denise Coats-Robinson, who lives in Southfield but who has deep ties to the city’s northeast side. The commission’s proposed maps would lump it in with the more affluent and more White areas of Harper Woods and the Grosse Pointe suburbs.

"We don't identify at all with the Pointes," Coats-Robinson said. "We identify more with Highland Park and Hamtramck. We have similar issues. We need minority mapping, not what we have."

The last round of redistricting, conducted by legislative Republicans, created 17 majority-minority districts in Michigan but ensured an overall GOP majority, according to critics. The maps drawn by commissioners contain zero. An expert working with the commission advised that a 40% minority district would be enough to elect candidates of color.

Groups including Democratic lawmakers, Detroit lawmakers and the Detroit branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have argued that  led to maps that split Black communities, reduce their political power and make it harder for them to elect Black candidates and candidates from Detroit.

Detroit Branch NAACP Executive Director Kamilia Landrum urged commissioners to consider maps submitted to them by the public instead.

"Black people fight for Black people differently," Landrum said. "Yes we have allies in other communities, but... we don't just need allies. We need people who represent us, have our experiences and understand us."

State Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, and local advocates organized a rally before the hearing to push commissioners to reconsider their approach to southeast Michigan.

"The commission has said time and time again that they will listen, and they have shown a willingness and an ability to listen," Hollier said.

Michael Joseph of Oak Park, president of the Detroit chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, addressed the Michigan redistricting commission at the TCF Center in Detroit on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

The commission's Wednesday hearing at the TCF Center was first of a series it will host about the 22 draft maps it has proposed for state House, state Senate and Congressional districts. Ten of the maps were developed collaboratively during meetings and 12 were drawn by individual commissioners. They will approve maps by Nov. 5, then have another public comment period.

Commissioners said this month data about voter turnout may affect their ultimate decisions about district lines. Some commissioners defended the current set of maps, which they said follow advice from their voting rights and partisan fairness experts.

Brittni Kellom, a Democratic redistricting commissioner from Detroit, acknowledged the passionate arguments. She said the commission has to contend with a lot of rigid criteria, such as ensuring districts are equal in population, comply with the Voting Rights Act, are geographically contiguous and don't favor political parties.

Kellom pointed to the guidance commissioners have received that indicates a 40% minority district is adequate. But she said she is encouraged to revisit the maps, specifically "to go back and look at some of the neighborhoods, because Detroit is made of neighborhoods, and see how we can keep those together and comply with the other criteria we have."

Voters Not Politicians, the organization behind the ballot proposal that created the commission three years ago, criticized its approach to mapping in a Tuesday statement.

Like some of the people who spoke Wednesday, the group cited an analysis of the maps conducted by Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy & Social Research that said the draft plans pursued an "unusual path to compliance with the Voting Rights Act" and said commissioners are relying on incomplete data to determine that a 40% minority is enough to satisfy the Voting Rights Act.

"We support the voices of community leaders and independent analysts who are raising serious concerns over the impact of the current draft maps and whether they satisfy the Voting Rights Act and create true opportunities for minority communities to elect candidates," said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians.

Laura Misumi, Executive Director of Rising Voices, which advocates for Asian American women in Michigan, said she also is concerned about a slice of Hamtramck that maps split from the rest of the city, which has robust immigrant communities from Bangladesh and Yemen.

Separating those blocks would mean the local Asian American voters couldn't as easily push for issues that impact them, like translation access or promoting Asian American history education in schools, Misumi said.

"It does not make a lot of sense to us," she said. "We think if we could just include that corner into House District 2, it would absolutely preserve the community of interest of Asian Americans in Detroit and Hamtramck."

Nikki Beccerra of southwest Detroit spoke as part of a group of Latino residents who asked commissioners to keep that portion of the city, plus Ecorse, Lincoln Park and Melvindale together.

Rebecca Szetela, the chairwoman of the Michigan redistricting commission, gets a thumbs up from M.C. Rothhorn, Democrat and commission vice chair, as they talk while independent commissioner Steven Lett watches his computer on Wednesday during a hearing in Detroit.

"We want to make sure our community of interest, the areas surrounding the factories, the immigrant communities, the low-income communities are unified so we have more representation," Beccerra said. 

While it is essential that the maps fairly represent Detroit, James McNeal said it is a good step to have them scrutinized by the public.

"I feel like I'm more likely to have an impact, versus [before, when we had] a few people behind a closed door saying ‘I’m going to divide up this cake,'" he said.