Detroit lawmakers plan to challenge redistricting maps over racial fairness

Sarah Rahal Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Detroit — A group of Detroit lawmakers said Monday they plan to file suit in the Michigan Supreme Court over redistricting maps they argue disenfranchise Black candidates and, by extension, Black voters. 

The congressional, state Senate and state House maps approved last week significantly decreased the number of majority-minority seats in the Michigan Legislature but also made gains in providing more partisan fairness toward Democrats, who have been subject to districts drawn by the Republican majority for decades. 

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, approved by voters in 2018, changed the way the once-in-a-decade redistricting process is done by giving that responsibility to a 13-member citizens panel made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and five non-partisan members. 

“Unfortunately, the problem lies in the largest African American majority city in the nation has received the very short end of the stick,” said filing attorney Nabih Ayad. “The new redistricting map lines have unfairly discriminated against the city of Detroit, its residents and its elected officials.”

The commission said Monday it had heard of the suit through media reports but had not yet been served. The panel believes the advice it received from its Voting Rights Act lawyer guided the creation of maps that comply with the Voting Rights Act, said commission spokesman Edward Woods.  

The commission hired its own litigation counsel early in the process and will not rely on Attorney General Dana Nessel's office for its defense as other state agencies do. 

State Rep.Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, discusses the lawsuit being filed against the new redistricting maps approved by a state commission during a Monday, Jan. 3, 2022 press conference at the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit.

Among the lawmakers supporting the lawsuit are state Reps. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods; Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit; Helena Scott, D-Detroit; Stephanie Young, D-Detroit, and Mary Cavanagh, D-Redford Township. Detroit Democratic Sen. Betty Jean Alexander also supported the suit, as did former lawmakers Sherry Gay-Dagnogo and Teola Hunter.

"To allow for this to happen now is absolutely ludicrous, and I hope that my colleagues on the Democratic side of the aisle are not being blinded by the fact that they have the opportunity to win the House to where they are going to allow the disenfranchisement of Black voters," said Yancey, who is term-limited. 

Carter agreed.

"We have to get into this fight and protect generations because representation matters," he said. "And we should be tired of these portable politicians."

Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes said she did not wish to see the diversity of Michigan's Legislature decrease. 

"The MDP is committed to fighting to ensure fair representation for all Michiganders including giving Black and Brown voters the ability to elect their candidate of choice in a general election and in a primary," Barnes said. 

The group argued the 2018 state constitutional amendment that created the commission required compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, which they allege has been violated by the new maps. 

"One of the reasons I believe that they (voters) voted in support of this is that this assures that the Voting Rights Act will not be violated," Ayad said. "This has honestly been a work in progress as we have additional plaintiffs being added on by the hour in this complaint."

A copy of the lawsuit, which was expected to be filed late Monday or early Tuesday, alleges the commission is guilty of "bipartisan gerrymandering" in violation of minority voting dilution and retrogression protections in the Voting Rights Act, which the Michigan Constitution refers to when outlining the duties of the commission.

The suit asks the Michigan Supreme Court to halt the implementation of the new maps this week and order the current maps be redrawn.

"Otherwise, you'll always going to have a majority that's going to dilute the minority in any essence," Ayad said. 

The group plans to support the legal effort though fundraising, personal money or potentially Detroit caucus political action committee funds, Gay-Dagnogo said. She said she hopes the Michigan Democratic Party also will support the suit. 

"If they want our support in upcoming elections — gubernatorial and anything else — then they need to come to the table," Gay-Dagnogo said. 

The plans approved by the commission a week ago "shattered" the goal of "an impartial, non-discriminatory, non-racist redistricting plan," according to a copy of the group's lawsuit provided to The Detroit News. 

By breaking up Detroit's majority-minority districts, the commission has diluted the Black minority vote in the area, a practice that "has long been banned by federal law pursuant to the Voting Rights Act of 1965," the lawsuit said. 

"The commission's redistricting is a blatant and obvious 'retrogression' of the national and Michigan Civil Rights Movement and sets back the Black population of Michigan generations by undoing the hard-fought representation achieved by Detroiters and the Black community in Michigan over the last 70 years," the document said. 

For example, the lawsuit noted, not one Senate district in the new plan contains the city of Detroit. Instead, the city is divided into eight pieces and drawn into districts with majority-White communities such as Canton, Farmington, New Baltimore, Sterling Heights, Clinton Township, Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham and Madison Heights. It is likely the Black vote will be diluted in those districts, making it difficult to get a Black candidate of choice through primary elections, the suit argues.

Aside from federal protections for minorities, the Black population also could be considered a community interest, one the redistricting commission was meant to "respect and protect" while drawing maps, the lawsuit said.

Instead, the plans are "bipartisan gerrymandering which, if implemented, would unlawfully reduce the voting power of minority racial groups to elect the candidate of their choosing," the suit said.

Overall, the maps adopted by the commission last week decreased the number of majority-Black districts in the proposed maps by stretching Detroit districts into the suburbs. African Americans are an influential voting bloc in the Democratic Party. The spoke-like districts were drawn as such 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.

Attorney Nabih Ayad with local leaders discusses the lawsuit being filed against the discriminatory new map redistricting established by the State Independent Commission during a press conference at Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit.

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. The commission's Voting Rights expert, Bruce Adelson, also has argued there is evidence in Michigan of a White crossover vote in which White voters will vote for a Black candidate.

"This is not rocket science," Gay-Dagnogo said. "They’re meeting behind closed doors and the memo they refused to release, these things are evidence that the process was flawed."

The former lawmaker was referencing an October closed-door meeting by the commission and seven legal memos that the state Supreme Court ordered released

While some Detroit Democrats remained disgruntled with the new maps approved last week, larger 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.