New Michigan state House maps reduce racial gerrymander - TAI News
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Protesters attend a meeting of Michigan’s new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission on Oct. 21, 2021, in Lansing, MI. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

Black voters in the Detroit area will have a better chance at having their voices heard at the ballot box this November after a federal court approved a redesign of Michigan House of Representatives districts Wednesday.

In December, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan ordered the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to redraw seven state House voting districts and six state Senate voting districts. 

The court 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. Detroit has a 78% Black population and is among the U.S. cities with the highest number of Black residents overall, but the maps had eliminated majority-Black districts.

In their March 27 order, the judges approved the new House map, named Motown Sound FC E1, because it increased the number of majority-Black districts. In the end, a total of 15 districts were redrawn in order to create more opportunities for Black voters to choose their elected officials in the state Legislature. The redistricting commission will begin drafting the new Senate map this April.

Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a former state House representative and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told the Michigan Advance that while the plaintiffs don’t believe the latest map provides the best possible outcome for Black voters, they’re grateful their efforts “yielded a greater opportunity for Detroit voters to elect a candidate of their choice.”

Gay-Dagnogo said, “Our focus now turns towards educating the community on the House map changes, and drawing a new Senate map.”

The 13 legislative districts that were ruled invalid are all held by Democrats. Under the new House map, no incumbent lawmakers would have to run against another incumbent lawmaker in the upcoming election, a result that the commission said  was coincidental. Although plaintiffs were concerned that the new map would continue to disenfranchise Black residents in 2024, the court said the changes would actually benefit Black voters.

“The record shows an energized electorate that was profoundly unhappy with the racial gerrymander,” the judges’ opinion reads. “And in six of the seven districts at issue here, African-American voters will have markedly more power to elect their candidate of choice in 2024 than they did in 2022.”

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 specific criteria when drawing maps. The districts must reflect communities of interest; comply with federal voting laws; be geographically connected; consider county and city boundaries; be reasonably compact; and ensure partisan fairness by not giving any political party or candidate a disproportionate advantage.

Commission Executive Director Edward Woods III said in a virtual press conference that it stayed focused on providing fair maps with citizen input, despite doubts raised and a tight timeline. The court required the commission to approve a final map by March 1, in time for the April 23 filing deadline to run in the 2024 state House election.

“The process does work, but it was never intended to work for self-interest and it was never intended to manipulate or to construe the process to seem like it was unfavorable or marginalizing a particular group,” Woods said.

All 110 state House seats are up for grabs this year, with Democrats and Republicans fighting for control of the chamber. Democrats won a narrow 56-54 majority in the House in 2022, but after two Democrats resigned in November, the current split is 54-54. The special election to fill those seats is scheduled for April 16.

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The Michigan Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.