Redistricting – and how nonprofits helped to preserve democracyFeature: Nonprofit Journal Project

Norman Clement has set high bars for himself and his neighbors come 2024.

Clement is founder of the Detroit Change Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing opportunities for Detroiters by improving civic engagement. With the November 2022 midterms barely behind him, Clement is already locked in on 2024. His aim? To increase voter turnout in Detroit to a staggering 85 percent of registered voters.

For context, the most recent presidential election in 2020 had slightly more than 50 percent of registered Detroit voters cast their ballots. These most recent midterms, in November 2022, garnered a voter turnout rate of 33.75 percent — though midterm elections historically don’t generate nearly as much interest as do the presidential elections.

It’s a big swing he’s taking, though you wouldn’t know it from talking to him. Clement’s pragmatic approach to community organizing makes it seem like an 85 percent turnout rate might even be possible. He’s analyzing which voting precincts had the least amount of participation and turning his organization’s focus there to knock on doors, text when they can, and get more and more Detroiters registered and voting.

Detroit Change Initiative will partner with other nonprofits in getting out the vote. Clement is a big believer in the role nonprofits play in our democracy, going so far as to say that nonprofits “saved America” in this most recent election. Nonprofits like DCI are on the ground and in the neighborhoods, and never not working.

“Nonprofits? We don't take time off. There's always work to do every year; you have to be there every single year whether there’s an election or not,” he says.

Harnessing the Power of Nonprofits

Clement’s belief in the power of nonprofits was emboldened by these most recent midterm elections, where his organization took part in a new initiative from the Michigan Nonprofit Association, which serves on behalf of and advocates for nonprofits throughout the state. MNA organized a coalition of 38 Michigan nonprofits to help guide their respective communities through the new citizen-led redistricting efforts that went into effect ahead of the 2022 elections.

These most recent midterm elections were a first for Michigan. Voters selected their representatives not on the basis of districts drawn by the politicians themselves, but instead drawn by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC). The citizen-led commission was put in place – as result of Michigan voters passing Proposal 2 in 2018 – to help end gerrymandering and make the redistricting process a more transparent one.

The 13-member bipartisan commission had to take seven factors into account when deciding on the final maps: the Voting Rights Act; contiguity; communities of interest; partisan fairness; incumbency; political boundaries; and compactness.

It was the “communities of interest” factor that MNA and its coalition focused on, a somewhat vaguely defined component of the new law that encouraged residents to submit their own political districts for consideration by the MICRC – districts that residents thought best represented their own communities. Who better to define a community of interest, after all, then the communities themselves.

The MNA provided their coalition members with the training and resources necessary to draw and submit political districts that they felt best represented them and their own communities.

“The reason why MNA does this work is that we want to ensure that populations that have been historically underrepresented are able to understand processes like these, and how they affect their communities and what's at stake,” says Joan Gustafson, external affairs officer for MNA. “When the voters passed the proposal, we mobilized the nonprofits that represent these communities of interest, and helped them understand this new process and how they could engage with the commission.”

Keeping Banglatown Together

One such organization to successfully engage the commission was the Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote-Michigan (APIAVote-MI) nonprofit. While the organization advocates for Asian and Pacific Islander Americans throughout the state, APIAVote-MI kept their focus on Banglatown, a community of Bangladeshi immigrants that straddles the Detroit and northern Hamtramck border, as its primary community of interest in these hearings.

The initial maps suggested by the MICRC had split Banglatown into multiple districts but APIAVote-MI worked to keep the neighborhood represented as one. APIAVote-MI was able to leverage the knowledge and resources shared by the MNA to mobilize their community and keep Detroit and Hamtramck’s Banglatown community together in what would eventually become Michigan State Senate District 3.

“They wanted to split Banglatown into three different districts, which seems contrary to the whole point of having a community of interest,” says Rebeka Islam, executive director of APIAVote-MI. “We went back and told them, ‘Hey, this is why you need to keep us together.’ We started sharing all the powerful stories of Banglatown.”

It worked. Well, eventually.

The MICRC released their next batch of draft maps and Banglatown was represented under two districts, not three. It was time for APIAVote-MI to get back to work, organizing the community to turn out for the next public forum to advocate for keeping Banglatown whole.

“We rallied up. We had over 30 people from the community turn out. We Uber-ed them, and we carpooled them over to Cobo Hall for the next public forum to say, ‘No, you need to keep Banglatown together,’” says Islam. “Our organization led that effort in making sure that residents knew what to say, how to articulate their stories, and at the end, we were able to keep Banglatown as one district.”

Separating Palmer Park

The state’s new redistricting process was not without controversy, with COVID-related delays hampering the commission and its timeline, and several of the scheduled public forums ultimately canceled altogether. There was a question, too, of how closely the MICRC listened to the communities of interest and the maps that were submitted. While the APIAVote-MI was successful in keeping their community of interest represented under one district, many other organizations weren’t so fortunate.

The LGBT Detroit nonprofit, in perhaps one of the most glaring examples, submitted their own map, which covered the Palmer Park area, only to see it split into two districts. And this was after LGBT Detroit’s map garnered the most positive public feedback above all other maps submitted in the online forum.

It was a frustrating process, says Jerron Totten, social justice engineer for LGBT Detroit. Totten, like many of the community organizers who engaged the MICRC, is conflicted about the outcome.

“Fortunately, our state House now closely matches the percentage of voters throughout the state, which means that we have enough Democratic representatives representing the ratio of Democratic voters, and likewise with Republican representatives and the Republican voters. So, that is really good,” Totten says.

“But probably the most alarming thing that came out of redistricting is that in Detroit, there is no longer a Black congressional representative. And this is particularly alarming for the 13th congressional district, which was held for so long by John Conyers. In the largest, strongest Black congressional district in our country, you don't have someone who looks like us to represent us.”

Preparing for 2024

There will be several elections before the next redistricting process begins, which occurs every ten years, and the MNA and their coalition of nonprofits have already begun preparing for the presidential election in 2024. As Clement says, there’s always work to do, whether it’s an election year or not. And given that this most recent iteration of redistricting was a first for Michigan, MNA and nonprofits will have the benefits of time and experience to better prepare for the next time Michigan redraws the lines of its political maps.

The 2030 U.S. Census looms large on the calendar, as it’s the census results that dictate much of this process. “We won’t know how many districts can even be drawn until the census is complete. But there is no finish line here,” says Gustafson with the MNA.

Election work is cyclical in nature, and it’s a cycle that doesn’t provide much time to rest. The MNA calls it a 10-year strategy, one that centers on the U.S. Census each decade, but is certainly not limited to it.

“Every year of this 10-year cycle, there are programs we can be running. There's education and outreach that we can be doing, so that when the census comes around every 10 years, we're not starting all over from scratch,” says Gustafson. “We have this whole network of nonprofits that do this work, and they can come into the process or lead the process how they see fit. Maybe some organizations want to work on the census; maybe some decide that they’re not going to get involved in redistricting, but they want to focus on voter registration. There can be many on-ramps and off-ramps, but MNA would always be keeping the issues warm, as it were, throughout the entire cycle.”

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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