Metro Detroiters weigh in on redistricting as commission moves forward with draft maps

Michigan State Capitol in autumn in Lansing, Michigan.

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is moving to the next phase of its court-ordered redraw of metro Detroit legislative districts. Area residents have begun to weigh in on the new map.

The commission held in-person meetings last week where  members of the public were asked to give their opinions on how the commissioners could restore the voting power of Black voters.

Late last year, a three-judge federal panel found the commission had violated the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by combining Detroit’s predominantly Black neighborhoods with mostly white suburban communities, effectively eliminating any majority Black districts. The seven state House of Representatives voting districts and six state Senate voting districts deemed invalid by the court are currently held by Democrats.

The panel was ordered to redraw and publish new draft House maps by Feb. 2 and new Senate districts by 2026. The U.S. Supreme Court denied requests from the commission and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to put the redraw on hold, but an appeal submitted by the commission is pending. 

Defending its maps in court last November, an attorney representing the commission said it had followed the law and prioritized partisan fairness when drafting the districts.

A majority of the resident feedback last week was about the need for the new districts to better reflect Detroit’s majority Black community.

“It appeared to me, watching and paying attention to what has taken place previously, that the Black votes were watered down,” said Virginia Williams, a Black Detroit resident. “That is unfair.” 

The audiences at the meetings were noticeably sparse, though some attended virtually.

“I would ask you to not pay attention to the empty room, but pay attention to the broken hearts and the disenfranchised people that it will affect if these maps are not drawn in fairness,” Williams said.

According to the court ruling, after the draft maps are submitted to the court by Feb. 2, the commission will still be required to solicit public comment on the proposal during in-person hearings or through its website until Feb. 23. One public hearing must be in Detroit.

The commission must approve a final map by March 1, and, following a review by parties to the original lawsuit and a court-appointed master, the court will approve the final slate of metro Detroit House districts by March 29.

The redistricting commission, made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents, was created by a 2018 state constitutional amendment passed by voters to keep politicians out of the redistricting process and prevent gerrymandering.

State statute requires the panel to use various criteria when drawing maps. The districts must reflect communities of interest; comply with federal voting laws; be geographically adjacent (the areas within the district must be connected); consider county and city boundaries; be reasonably compact; and ensure partisan fairness by not giving any political party or candidate a disproportionate advantage.

On Friday, the commission agreed to send 14 drawings of Detroit-area House districts to its attorneys for further review on whether its efforts comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. As the commission continues to receive expert and resident perspectives, the proposed maps will likely undergo additional changes until a final map is agreed to.

Residents who spoke out at the commission meetings last week talked about the need to keep the lines of the districts outside the seven invalidated areas untouched by any new changes. They proposed the commission seek inspiration from examples of maps submitted by outside organizations, such as Michigan State University and the Promote the Vote coalition.

Sandra Sorini Elser, a volunteer with Voters Not Politicians, an organization that helped pass the ballot proposal that created the commission in 2018, said that leaving the lines of the other voting districts unchanged would make the new maps “as disruptive to as few voters and representatives as possible.”

Secretary of State Benson has not commented on the constitutionality of the commission’s previous maps, but encouraged Michigan residents to participate in its public sessions as it continues the drafting process.

“All Michigan citizens deserve a government that works for them and reflects our state’s vibrant diverse communities and perspectives,” Benson said in a statement. “As the state’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission gets to work redrawing legislative districts in southeast Michigan, I hope all citizens will actively participate and provide their input throughout the Commission’s upcoming open meetings.”