Metro Detroit nonprofits aim to get community voices into redistricting process

In 2016, Norman Clement understood what gerrymandering meant, but he didn't begin to fully understand how it could affect Detroit-area voters until that November's election results rolled in. 

Clement, founder of the Detroit Change Initiative, observed what other analyses have confirmed: Republicans, in races from the White House to state congress, benefited in Michigan from electoral districts drawn by members of their party. Clement says he saw that manifest in Detroit in the form of low voter turnout, noting that Detroiters were tired of voting "overwhelmingly" but not seeing their wishes represented in election results.

"You have voters who want to participate in the process, but when you manipulate the maps, you create doubt in the whole political process," he says. 

However, the decennial process of redrawing Michigan's electoral districts will look very different this year – and Clement will be a part of it. In 2018, 61% of Michigan voters approved the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (ICRC) formation, a bipartisan body that will draw Michigan's electoral maps instead of the state legislature, where the majority party has previously controlled the process.

However, the ICRC's decisions will rely heavily on public input – and the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) has gathered a coalition of Metro Detroit activists, including Clement, to ensure that area residents have their say.

"We want the people to have a voice, not just Democrat or Republican," Clement says. "This is a people's forum."

Outreach on the ground

Citizens can provide feedback to the ICRC by providing public comments or submitting proposals for new district maps. MNA's ICRC Initiative, launched this February, is working with 20 nonprofits in Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids to help mobilize the populations they serve to participate in either way. Fifteen of the 20 nonprofits are located in the Detroit area, and they include organizations that work with the Black, Hispanic, Arab-American, and Asian-American communities, among others.

"We're working to specifically promote racial equity so that communities of color, most importantly, who happen to be often the ones who are underrepresented and underserved, have a voice in processes like these for the next ten years," says Mariana Martinez, director of civic engagement initiatives for MNA. "We know that these maps will be drawn for the next ten years, so this is a good time to get involved."

The initiative spun out of MNA's similar effort to promote participation in last year's census. MNA provides mini-grants, training, and informational resources to the nonprofits, but leaving it up to them to determine how to spread the word about participating in the redistricting effort. Martinez emphasizes that MNA is "not on the front lines" of the effort, but "valuing the partnership with those who are." 

"They're the ones who know how to convey this information to their communities," she says. "We provide them with the resources and tools, and they themselves figure out how to best engage their communities because that's what they know best."

That attitude trickles down to the coalition members themselves. Clement says he's been reaching out to neighborhood block clubs and social clubs in Detroit to spread the word about participating in the redistricting process.

"We look up to the community leaders," he says. "They actually know what's best for their community. They know what they want, know how they're doing, and know how they want their districts to be drawn. I trust them. We're just a messenger."

Sandy Gaytan-Tinoco is the community organizing coordinator for the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation (DHDC), an ICRC Initiative member. She says there's been high enthusiasm for the redistricting process among the community members she's worked with so far.

"They want to be civically engaged," she says. "They know it's important ... but they just don't know how they can be a part of it."

Martinez says it's been "amazing and exciting" to see both the nonprofit leaders' motivation to spread information on redistricting, as well as the interest they've generated among residents.

"Redistricting isn't sexy," she says. "It doesn't resonate the way the census resonates. But what we're seeing is that people are interested in it and value it and understand the importance of getting involved with it."

What is a community of interest?

Overall, a key concern for the ICRC Initiative, and the redistricting process, is identifying "communities of interest," or COIs. The Michigan Constitution lists seven criteria the ICRC shall use to draw districts in order of priority. The third is that "Districts shall reflect the state's diverse population and communities of interest." The constitution says COIs "may include, but shall not be limited to, populations that share cultural or historical characteristics or economic interests," and the only things they may not include are relationships with political parties, incumbents, or candidates. That means Michiganders could make various cases for why the ICRC should consider drawing a district around them and their COI. 

The vagueness of the definition of COI is the subject of some debate. Martinez says the lack of specificity is "a good thing."

"If you were to narrow it to a specific definition, you might be inadvertently excluding or blocking out certain communities that were not thought of in the description," she says. "Human beings are complex."

Jeff Timmer, a partner at Lansing-based Two Rivers Public Affairs and a senior advisor at The Lincoln Project, worries that the vagueness will result in litigation when the ICRC completes its work.

"There's no scholarly, commonly accepted definition [of a COI]," Timmer says. "There's no legal definition. It's like pornography. It's in the eye of the beholder. You know it when you see it, and so it's going to mean something different to everybody."

Attorney and former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer says the new criteria, including COIs, are a positive change because they've "forced people to think very differently." Where the redistricting process was once heavily focused on the geographical boundaries of cities and townships, those boundaries are now the second-lowest item on the commission's list of priorities for redrawing districts.

"I think that's a healthy thing because that forces people to think about redistricting as representing people, which is what this process is supposed to be about in the end, not boundaries," he says.

Participants in the ICRC Initiative have embraced the challenge of defining their COIs – and that challenge is much greater for some than others. Dearborn-based Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) is an ICRC member, and its primary COI is Metro Detroit's Arab-American community. But Rima Meroueh, director of ACCESS' National Network of Arab American Communities, says that community can be challenging to identify on a district map. 

That's because the census does not have a racial category for Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) respondents, and Arab-American residents generally end up marking their race as white instead. (That's despite a 2015 study conducted by the Census Bureau itself that recommended adding a MENA category.)

Meroueh says that's forced her and other ACCESS staff to "play detective" with other data, such as census counts of residents who speak a second language in Wayne County, to attempt to paint a clear statistical picture of Metro Detroit's Arab-American community. Despite that frustration, she says the redistricting effort allows the community to define itself on its terms. For instance, she says, residents might define themselves as a COI based on being not just Arab-American but also a Christian, Muslim, or immigrant community.

"It's really more about the Arab-American community being able to voice their concerns and hoping that the process works to create these districts where it creates power for communities who need to see change," Meroueh says.

Similarly, Gaytan-Tinoco says DHDC has focused its work on the Latino population in Southwest Detroit. However, she says there are also smaller COIs that fall under that umbrella, such as bilingual communities, immigrant communities, and communities organized around environmental justice. 

"Districts are not only about race and shouldn't just be about race," says Oscar Castañeda, statewide Latino organizing coordinator for DHDC. "There are so many other reasons where you could find common ground, like education and environmental issues. So we really need to get out and find areas of common interest with other groups."

Unpacking and un-cracking

So how might these nonprofits and their communities of interest reshape Michigan's electoral map? Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party who helped the party redraw Michigan's electoral maps in 2011, says there's no lack of gerrymandered districts to be corrected. He says Republicans couldn't have maintained their majorities in the state House and Senate in 2018 and 2020 "without people like me drawing the maps and putting our thumbs on the scale when it came to deciding where the lines fell." 

"Where there was subjective availability to create what would be called a reasonably safe Republican district or a reasonably safe Democrat district ... it was taken," Timmer says. "I have admitted culpability."

For example, Timmer points to the three state Senate districts wholly contained in Macomb County. The county's northern side, where District 8 lies, is reliably Republican; the southern side, where District 9 lies, is reliably Democratic. Timmer says the central District 10 could have been more competitive, but Republicans drew it to favor their party by gerrymandering the city of Mt. Clemens out of it. 

That's an example of one of the two essential methods of gerrymandering: diluting voting power by splitting a party's voters across multiple districts, known as "cracking." The other method, known as "packing," takes the opposite approach by drawing voters of similar political beliefs into the same district to make surrounding districts less competitive. 

Such is the case in congressional districts 11, 13, and 14, which cover parts of Oakland and Wayne Counties. Brewer says Republicans in 2011 went to "extraordinary efforts" to gerrymander District 11 in then-Rep. Thaddeus McCotter's favor, packing Democratic, mostly Black voters into districts 13 and 14 and white voters into District 11. Emails that emerged in a federal lawsuit over the redistricting reinforce Brewer's statement, as Republicans discussed a plan to "cram ALL the Dem garbage" into districts 9, 12, 13, and 14.

Those are just a few of the districts that Metro Detroiters may seek to have redrawn by the ICRC. Clement, for example, has his eye on some of Detroit's irregularly shaped state House districts.

"You have a loop here, then a block, then a radius there," he says. "That's not fair. It makes no sense. We just want it drawn fair – what makes sense, what makes it equitable."

Castañeda is hoping to see a redistricting that undoes the current "cracking" of Metro Detroit's Latino community. He notes that although the community is heavily concentrated in Southwest Detroit, River Rouge, and Lincoln Park, it's currently split across three different congressional districts. With the current district map, he says the community loses "any chance of having representation."

"You can see how the bulk of the Latino population is in the same space," Castañeda says. "So you wonder, why did they break it?"

Members of the ICRC Initiative emphasize that their goal is to give people in their communities the tools to analyze district maps and make their own decisions about how they should be redrawn. Castañeda has been doing that by training people to use mapping software like Districtr and ArcGIS.

"It's a really useful exercise," he says. "It's helping me to show how some communities have been divided, and by being divided, they lost power. But you have to see those things to comprehend them."

Possible outcomes

The ICRC is currently holding public hearings through July 1 and is constitutionally required to complete the redistricting process by November 1. But it's hard to say how the process will change the outcome of Michigan's elections next year. Timmer notes that there's already a major snag in that the ICRC has appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court for a deadline extension on its work, given that the census data it relies on has been delayed by COVID-19.

"We already have a conundrum that will enable litigation from opponents, and litigation may upend the process that Michigan voters overwhelmingly chose in 2018," he says, adding that "the odds that judges, rather than the commission draw this, is probably 50/50."

Timmer also anticipates that the process may not result in a significant shift in the balance of power in Michigan or its congressional delegation. It's been often noted in recent years that the proportion of votes each party receives statewide is often very different from the proportion of power they hold in state Congress, with Democrats generally receiving more votes but holding fewer seats. Timmer expects that won't change much even when redistricting is complete because Democrats are clustered in a handful of urban areas, while Republicans are diffused across the state. But, he says, the redistricting process may result in better candidates.

"I have, in the last four or five years, been very outspoken about the rise of Trump and Trumpism, about the toxicity and dangers in our politics, the extremism," he says. "And it's become clear to me over these years how creating a greater number of districts on either side of the political spectrum, where somebody is answerable primarily to those voters in an August primary election and not in a November general election, leads to extremism."

Brewer says the outcome of the redistricting process "can't be any worse" for Democrats, who have "nowhere to go but up."

"For the first time, the average citizen can have a voice, as opposed to the past 20 years, where the Republicans and their staff drew the maps in secret in Lansing," he says. "... That will give both political parties in an equally divided state, and this is an equally divided state, an equal opportunity to win control of the Senate, the House, and the congressional delegation. And that's all you can ask for, in the end."

Castañeda says this is Michigan's "first stab" at redistricting, so "maybe this time not everything is going to be right." But he thinks it's the first step in the right direction.

"To me, this process of redistricting is the ultimate democratic activity, and we need to get into it," he says.


Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere
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