Community groups look to convince redistricting commission to change state maps

Community Redistricting is a series about how Michigan communities are working together to end gerrymandering so that all residents have a voice at the local, state, and federal level. This series is made possible with funding from the Michigan Nonprofit Association.

As it stands today, the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) will vote to select the final three maps outlining Michigan’s new political districts by Thursday, Dec. 30. That could change — it wouldn’t be the first time that the timeline throughout this process has — but barring any end-of-the-clock decisions from the MICRC, that date remains as the day when the commission is due to select the Congressional, state House, and state Senate districts that will decide Michigan’s elections for the next ten years.

In these waning days of the map selection process, community stakeholders that have embedded themselves in Michigan’s redistricting efforts are calling on their communities to make one last push in letting the MICRC know what they think about this final pool of maps. Two public meetings remain on the MICRC’s schedule: Thursday, Dec. 2, at the G. Mennen Williams Building in Lansing, and Thursday, Dec. 16, at Cadillac Place in Detroit.

“We are organizing more folks to go up — and especially in Detroit — and to let them know that it's not over yet,” says Rebeka Islam, executive director of the Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote-Michigan (APIAVote-MI) organization.

Islam and APIAVote-MI have been proactive in using the public hearings to get in front of the commission and comment on their draft maps — and with some success, she says. Initial maps released by the MICRC split Detroit and Hamtramck’s Banglatown community into different districts; it was later made whole following public hearings where Islam and members of her community spoke before the commission.

Members of APIAVote-MI speak before the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission at the Oct. 20 Detroit public hearing.

But more work remains. Islam says that while she was happy to see Banglatown better represented in the draft maps, she worries that it comes at a cost to Black Detroiters. A lack of majority-minority districts in the majority-Black city could violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, potentially triggering future lawsuits. She plans to use the future public meetings to let the commission know.

“The draft maps now have Banglatown, the community that we asked for, in one district. So that’s good. But they cut out Detroit voters on the south side to get that, and that’s not what we wanted,” Islam says. “We want to keep brown and Black votes together. We want the ability to partner with other populations that face similar issues as we do, like socio-economic and health inequities, racism, education — anything, you name it.

“While we may hold stark differences from other BIPOC groups, we’ve also found that there’s so much more that we share.”

Time for an extension?

Islam’s fear that her own success in advocating for the Banglatown community came at the detriment to others is commendable, though perhaps not fair to herself. She submitted the Banglatown map as a “community of interest,” one of seven factors the commission must weigh in approving the final maps. Other factors include the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and partisan fairness, among others.

But those different factors are supposed to work together, not against each other, says Bob Chunn. As president and co-founder of RelA2ve, an Ann Arbor-based technology firm whose NextVote technology has helped nonprofits like APIAVote-MI craft their maps, Chunn has been deeply involved in the redistricting process. Factors like communities of interest, maintaining partisan fairness and majority-minority districts do not have to be mutually-exclusive.

“The false narrative that we're given is that you're only able to do one or the other, when, in fact, we can see lots of examples of where all three are dealt with at the same time,” says Chunn. “You can have an improvement in each one, it just takes a lot of detailed work down at the precinct level to do it.”

Those examples might not be represented in the draft maps presented by the commission, but independent groups have been successful in doing so, he says. Chunn himself is crafting a state House map to present to the MICRC in hopes of demonstrating that a better balance is possible.

The state House map is by far the most difficult to produce; whereas the Congressional and state Senate maps have fewer but larger districts, the 110 districts that make up the state House map mean that even the slightest of changes can have profound effects. It’s Chunn’s belief that the MICRC should extend the deadline and take more time in drawing their state House map.

This is the first time that the 13-person citizens commission has ever drawn such political maps, he says, and it’s understandable that the more complicated maps are more difficult to produce; so perhaps an extension is in order. Extending the deadline would push the vote from the end of December and into February, restarting the legally-required 45-day public comment period.

“I think they just didn't have time. They're still building their skill set, working on less complicated maps. Only one Commissioner produced a House map, because they're so complicated,” Chunn says. The MICRC initially released a group of collectively-agreed-upon draft maps, with individual commissioners later submitting maps of their own.

“Naturally, they would get better at this — and they have. So we're just looking for them to apply their newfound skills to the most complicated set of maps. Keep working for a little bit.”

Like APIAVote-MI, LGBT Detroit is a nonprofit organization that submitted maps based on their own communities of interest. The two organizations are part of a 38-member coalition of nonprofits organized by the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) in an effort to provide underrepresented communities a stronger platform in the redistricting process. It’s the MNA that connected their cohort with Chunn, who helped the nonprofits draw their maps and craft their narratives.

Jerron Totten of LGBT DetroitJerron Totten, social outreach coordinator and legislative advocacy specialist for LGBT Detroit, wasn’t so fortunate in seeing his community of interest represented under one House district. He shares Chunn’s belief that the MICRC needs to extend their deadline in approving the state House map. 

“I think they should start from scratch. They should have built more time into their schedule to work on the House maps,” Totten says. “None of the maps that they have set out are fair. And so it’s our belief that they should just really start from scratch.”

Attend in-person, if possible

With the final two public hearings approaching, groups like those that make up the MNA’s cohort of nonprofits are preparing their communities to comment on the maps, and for what could very well be the last time. There are multiple ways to comment — attending the meetings in-person or virtually, submitting written comments online — but if you really want to make sure that your voice is heard, Chunn says, attending the meetings and providing comment in-person seems to be the most likely way that the members of the MICRC will listen.

“The commission has shown that they listen to in-person testimony,” says Chunn. “So those that travel to speak to them in the room carry the most weight. And those who speak virtually, you know, maybe a close second. And then, personally, they don't seem to be listening well to what’s being said online.”

He points to the successful in-person lobbying of groups like APIAVote-MI and Miigwech, Inc., another nonprofit among the MNA cohort. Online comments, however, should play a bigger role than they appear to have played. There were only five public hearings, cut down from the nine originally planned, and that’s during a pandemic where maybe people don’t feel comfortable — or aren’t able — to attend the limited number of public hearings. There should be more consideration of the online comments, he says, pandemic or not.

For a group like LGBT Detroit, which had the most comments on the public comment portal yet didn’t see their community of interest maps represented in the draft maps, that’s especially frustrating.

“I'm not sure what their process has been for reviewing public comments, but I do think it's a waste of time to request that they be made online if they were not going to at least review that information,” Totten says.

That puts more pressure on community organizations to arrange trips to the meetings themselves, to convince their neighbors that these are meetings worth attending. That’s exactly what many of the organizations within the MNA cohort will be doing, including Islam’s APIAVote-MI.

With the last two public meetings planned — one on Thursday, Dec. 2, in Lansing and the other on Thursday, Dec. 16, in Detroit — there’s still time to sway the MICRC’s decisions.

“We have a core group of community members that have been with us along this process, that went to all the meetings, that have been making public comments virtually. So we’re reaching back out to them to say, ‘Hey, look, this is the last one, this is what we're going to deal with. Come out, let them know that this is what we like, this is what we don't like,’ so that the commission can make decisions based on our comments,” Islam says.

“The energy level is still the same, if not more, right now.”
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