Civil rights commission urges redistricting panel to consider minority voters

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

For the second time in about a month, Michigan civil rights officials urged the state's redistricting commissioners to consider minority representation when drawing political maps that will govern state elections for the next decade. 

The civil rights commission unanimously adopted a resolution Monday urging the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to adopt fair electoral maps for the state House, state Senate and Congress. The maps, the commission said, should not "result in the dilution of the minority vote."

The resolution came about a month after Michigan Civil Rights Department Director John Johnson told the commission at an Oct. 20 public hearing in Detroit that its draft maps violated the Voting Rights Act because they failed to preserve the ability for minority voters to elect candidates of color. 

Stacie Clayton, chairwoman for the civil rights commission.

The maps have since been adjusted to feature more majority minority districts, but they still fall short of the number of majority minority districts currently in place in Michigan. 

“Michigan voters have entrusted the redistricting commission with making monumental decisions that will have a direct impact on the ability to cast a meaningful ballot and the opportunity for minority communities to vote for individuals who best represent their interests,” said Stacie Clayton, chairwoman for the civil rights commission. 

“If an electoral map results in the dilution of the minority vote or infringes on a minority’s right to elect the candidate of their choice, it does not meet the requirements of the law, the Michigan Constitution or the test of fairness.”

The civil rights commission in its resolution urged redistricting members to compare Michigan's 22 majority minority districts — 17 of which are majority Black — with the districts developed in the redistricting commission's nine collaborative maps adopted Nov. 5. 

Currently, two of the nine proposed collaborative maps — both state House maps — contain seven majority minority districts each.

The Civil Rights Commission indicated three measures redistricting members should consider based on past U.S. Supreme Court precedent: Whether a minority group is politically united, whether it is "large enough and compact enough" to make up a majority in a district, and evidence that the majority group has historically been able to come together to defeat the minority group's candidate. 

The redistricting commission on Tuesday said it appreciated and respected the commission's resolution. It also noted the panel was bound by the order of district criteria laid out in the 2018 constitutional amendment creating the commission.

"Following the seven ranked redistricting criteria, the first one mandates equal population and compliance with the Voting Rights Act," said Edward Woods, a spokesman for the redistricting panel. "In addition, all of our Michigan congressional, state Senate and state House proposed maps have been reviewed by legal counsel to ensure no violations of the Voting Rights Act.”

The issue of majority minority districts has been one of the most debated topics surrounding the maps proposed so far by the commission. 

The commission initially included zero majority-Black districts in the public hearing phase in an effort to "unpack" past efforts to isolate the Democratic vote to 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 Black leaders have argued the commission did too much to "unpack" Detroit area districts, making it unlikely African Americans in the unpacked districts would be able to elect a Black candidate of their choosing if they were combined with suburban Democrats. 

Several Detroit leaders and elected officials have expressed disappointment with the scant number of majority minority districts. U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, told Gongwer News Monday that she would file suit if the new maps didn't include more majority minority districts. 

But changing the maps at this stage could cause issues with the timeline for the maps' approval. 

The redistricting commission is several days into a 45-day public comment period ahead a final vote to adopt the maps in late December. If the panel were to make any changes to the maps at this point, the 45-day clock would have to restart to allow for additional public review.