Michigan redistribution must reflect communities of interest on the maps

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One of the most difficult tasks for the randomly selected group of Michigan voters tasked with redesigning the state’s legislative and legislative constituencies this year is that they will have to draw constituencies that maintain communities with shared political interests. together.

The Michigan Redistribution Commission is considering how it will enforce this new requirement as communities across the state work tirelessly to champion their cause before the commission.

And their work could be made much more difficult if the new criteria are abused by powerful and well-funded groups that overtake the interests of populations traditionally marginalized by the political process.

John Sellek, CEO of Lansing-based Harbor Strategic Public Affairs and longtime GOP strategist, said prioritizing communities of interest could backfire against poorer and less well-organized communities do not have an equal chance to present their case to the commission.

Bob LaBrant, a retired Michigan Chamber of Commerce attorney who played a pivotal role in the 2011 redistribution plan that secured Republican control of the Michigan legislature, said he was concerned that ” the most well-funded and aggressive interest groups just pack (the) … public hearings and have everyone sing the same songbook. ”

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said community engagement is crucial to prevent this from happening. “We don’t want a scenario where we go through all of this to have citizens in charge and lobbyists and political parties are the only ones coming to the committee with suggested cards,” she said during the meeting. ‘a press conference. November 2019 Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, or CLOSUP, panel.

In 2018, Michigan voters passed a constitutional amendment that gave the power to designate state districts to a commission of 13 Michigan voters, removing that power from the legislature. Among the main criteria that the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission of Michigan must consider when creating new maps are “communities of interest”. The state constitution defines these communities as groups that might “share cultural or historical characteristics or economic interests”.

There is no official directory of these communities of interest, and there are potentially thousands of such communities. These could be places of worship, social service agencies, local historical societies, school districts, outdoor recreation areas, arts and cultural institutions, or a group of home owners. secondary.

At a February 11 committee meeting, Suann Hammersmith, executive director of Michigan’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, called the language of the constitution “fairly vague” and urged Commissioners to adopt their own definition of communities of interest “beyond what is in the constitution”.

Doug Clark, a Republican commissioner from Rochester Hills, agreed and said the commission should agree on a definition before starting to hold public hearings on the redistribution.

“If we don’t have a standard definition that we’re going to use, we’re going to have a red face, you know? It’s going to be embarrassing for us,” Clark said.

Making communities of interest a top priority was aimed at correcting gerrymandered districts that were diluting the political power of communities “divided, fissured and wrapped up for political gain,” Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians who put the constitutional amendment on redistribution. in front of voters, said during a November 2019 Panel on the communities of interest hosted by CLOSUP.

The language of the constitution was intentionally expansive “to allow members of a community to define themselves,” Wang said at a press conference. February 25 panel hosted by CLOSUP. The only requirement is that the communities are geographically connected and have a common interest, she added.

In addition to educating the public about the new redistribution process and reaching agreement on how to define communities of interest, the commission faces an unprecedented backlog in census data.

The Census Bureau recently announced that it will provide redistribution data to states by September 30, which could force the commission to exceed the timeframes for proposing and adopting new districts set out in Michigan’s constitution. The committee unanimously decided it would seek an extension of the deadline from the Michigan Supreme Court in tandem with the Secretary of State at its March 5 meeting.

During the February 25 panel, Wang said there was a silver lining in the delay. This could in fact provide an opportunity to deepen the engagement between the commission and the communities of interest before maps are drawn.

The criterion of “communities of interest” comes third in the list of redistribution requirements, following compliance with federal law and the creation of geographically contiguous districts. No other state has given these communities a priority as high as Michigan, according to Tom Ivacko, executive director of CLOSUP.

Following: Six-month delay in census data in conflict with redistribution deadlines in the state constitution

Following: The constituency commission’s plan to close the meeting to discuss the census delay raising questions

Local leaders plan to mobilize communities to participate in the redistribution

Local leaders are busy making plans to mobilize residents to contribute to the commission so that the political power of the communities they represent is strengthened in Lansing and Washington, DC

The Michigan Nonprofit Association recently launched a coalition of 20 nonprofits from Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids that will conduct outreach to historically underrepresented communities to participate in the redistribution.

Detroit Change Initiative, a member of the Voter Mobilization Coalition, plans to partner with community groups and neighborhood coalitions to discuss the new redistribution process with residents of Detroit.

Norman Clement, founder and executive director of the initiative, said residents of Detroit are well aware of the issues. Some Detroit residents who did not vote in the last election have singled out the city’s gerrymandered neighborhoods and said the boundaries were drawn in such a way as to make their preferences irrelevant, Clement said.

“In these communities of color here, they understand redlining,” he said, comparing gerrymandering to the practice of banking institutions denying a loan or insurance companies denying someone coverage based on their location. place of residence.

In previous redistribution rounds, “Detroit has lost a voice,” Clement said. “This is an opportunity to fix this evil, but also to make sure that the evil never repeats itself.”

For the first time, voters will be asked a question they have never asked before: “How do you think the lines should be drawn?”

A 2018 report the quantification of the level of partisan gerrymandering in Michigan by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan found that Michigan’s cards exceeded the threshold of what is considered gerrymandering and reflected a consistent advantage for Republicans.

During the February 25 panel, community leaders have spoken out against the evils of gerrymandering.

Michigan’s 14th Congressional District, which winds from the southern border of Detroit to Pontiac in Oakland County, was cited as an example. “The city of Pontiac really has nothing in common with Grosse Pointe,” said Kermit Williams, executive director of Oakland Forward, an organization dedicated to breaking down the economic and social barriers faced by communities of color in the county. . “African Americans have been under-represented and this is an opportunity to make sure that they are not only represented, but that they get a seat at the table,” said Williams.

Meanwhile, other communities where people would like to be in the same neighborhood have been fragmented for decades.

Andy Helmboldt, a former Battle Creek commissioner, said Battle Creek has strong ties to Kalamazoo. Residents commute between the two cities, share healthcare systems and even a key geographic feature – a river that connects the two – that causes the two cities to share similar environmental concerns. “When we had the Enbridge oil spill here in Calhoun County, that oil spilled all the way to Kalamazoo.”

But for decades, the two cities were divided into separate neighborhoods. “People should feel like their representatives are from their community and we just haven’t had that here in 30 years in Battle Creek,” Helmboldt said.

Confusion and conflicts over communities of interest

It’s unclear how familiar most Michigan people are with the new redistribution process, but a recent survey reveals mixed familiarity with their local officials. Led by CLOSUP in spring 2020, the Michigan Public Policy Survey found over a third – 35% – of local officials surveyed knew “very little” about the redistribution process or had never heard of it before. And many local officials have reported confusion and skepticism about communities of interest.

The first group of commissioners face the challenge of informing the public about the new redistribution criteria so that communities can tell the commission where they can be located on a map and the interests they share that justify keeping them together. . When it comes to adopting the new maps, it will be up to the commission to determine whether communities should remain united for the purposes of political representation.

All the communities that want to be in the same neighborhood cannot come together. And conflicts between communities of interest over the proposed maps are inevitable, warned Connie Malloy, the former chair of the independent, citizen-led California Redistribution Commission during the panel.

“The goal is not for everyone to come out of this process happy with the cards,” she said. “The goal is that we have a fair set of cards that everyone can live with.”

Clara Hendrickson checks Michigan facts and politics as a member of the corps with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support their work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Contact her at [email protected] or 313-296-5743 for comments or to suggest a fact check. Follow her on Twitter @clarajanehen .

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