Michigan's new independent redistricting commission, and the draft political maps it has drawn, are headed into a storm next week at TCF Center in Detroit, to say the least.

A day after the commission approved 10 maps with barely a hint of conflict, elected officials, ministers and other interested politicos in Detroit on Tuesday raised virulent concerns that the nation's largest Black majority city stands on the brink of having its preferred representation taken away in Lansing and in Washington. That, they say, is the effect of maps that would strip the state of all but a handful of state House districts where Blacks outnumber whites and represent a majority of the population.

And they plan to make themselves heard when the commission begins its public hearings next Wednesday in Detroit.

"It's absolute insanity," said the Rev. Horace Sheffield III, a longtime radio personality, civil rights activist and pastor. "It's disenfranchisement of the African American community, where we have significantly less representation, at one fell swoop by a supposedly nonpartisan process. There is something wrong with that."

In drafting the maps, the 13-member randomly selected commission largely followed what it had been instructed to do by staff and experts: unpack overwhelmingly Black districts in Detroit designed a decade ago by Republicans in Lansing and instead spread Black voters across more districts. That gives Democrats a better chance of controlling a number of seats representative of their total vote share.

But it also means that in 17 current congressional, state House and state Senate districts where Blacks are the clear majority of voters, they will no longer retain that numerical edge, causing worries that whites or others may win seats in those areas or that the commission's plans could run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act, which is intended to protect a cohesive minority's political ability to elect candidates of its choice. The commission's staff, however, says it has worked to ensure that the proposed maps meet the letter of the law.

The maps — four configurations of new congressional districts, three state House maps and three state Senate maps — are only proposals, and the commission is expected to make changes after a round of public hearings beginning next week before starting a final round of drafting.

But that's not doing much to settle worries that opportunities to elect candidates of color could be hampered by whatever plan is settled on by the commission. Created by a statewide referendum in 2018, the Michigan Constitution now gives the commissioners — all novices in mapping political boundaries — final discretion in deciding what the plans will look like.

That said, compliance with the Voting Rights Act is mandatory, and it includes protections for minority populations.

What it does not include, however, is a guarantee of districts in which a minority group is given the majority of the vote. Instead, a cohesive minority group's political will is supposed to be protected if it would be the victim of racially polarized voting — meaning another racial group tends to vote as a bloc against the minority's preferred candidates.

Meanwhile, as experts explained to the commission, minority groups can actually see their political fortunes damaged by concentrating too many of their votes in one area, rather than spreading them out and, theoretically, the party they support gaining more power.

For instance, many of the current legislative districts in Detroit that are home to a Black voting population over the age of 18 are well above 50%, including at least four state House districts with a Black voting age population over 70%. Two — current state House districts 7 and 8 — have Black voting age populations over 90%, a Free Press analysis of census records shows. A report from one of the commission's experts said House District 3 also was over 90% — the Free Press had it at 89%.

Bruce Adelson, the commission’s voting rights attorney, has stressed that assigning additional minority voters to a district beyond what is needed to protect their opportunity to elect candidates of choice can create other legal problems. Where that line is, is hard to say, however. Some experts say a plurality of around 35% to 45% of a district's population gives it enough strength to elect its candidates and ward off any legal challenge.

Some commissioners have expressed worry also that the maps could diminish the voting strength of minority voters by splitting them up across too many districts.

“Mr. Adelson, I appreciate all of the advice you give us, but I’ve got to be honest, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this direction that we are going under,” said Commissioner Anthony Eid during a commission meeting in early October. Eid pointed, to an early draft district in Detroit with a 35% Black voting age population and questioned whether a primary election would advance a Black candidate.

And that is a concern: It's not at all unusual for Detroit political races to attract multiple candidates. If those candidates split the minority in a primary in the city, there is the possibility a suburban candidate, if he or she consolidates the vote there, could win the primary and, in a district with a decided partisan lean toward Democrats, win the seat.

“I understand that in the general election, yes, all of these districts that we draw are going to be Democratic districts but that’s not actually where the choice happens in these districts,” Eid said.

As of now, the commission's maps clearly follow the advice of its staff. The congressional map having the district with the single-highest proportion of Black voting age population (VAP) shows 46.4% representation, compared with 53.4% in the district now. A proposed state Senate map has 47.7% for its highest Black VAP, compared with 52.5% at present. A proposed state House map has 50.6% for its highest Black VAP, compared with 92% now.

Those figures are based on data put out by the commission as it drafted the maps, not with additional information released Monday as it voted on them that showed even somewhat lower figures for the Black voting age population in those districts.

Meanwhile, the state is losing one of its current 14 congressional seats, with population growing faster in Western and Southern states. The commission has drawn districts that, in theory, give Democrats a slight 7-6 edge. But neither of the current Black majority districts, both anchored in Detroit, would remain, instead linked to outlying areas.

It's of note, though, that the maps, as drawn, clearly do lower a so-called "efficiency gap" that has benefited Republicans over the last decade. That gap indicates, for instance, that Republicans did about 20% better than they would have, given statewide vote totals in congressional elections in Michigan, if the districts had been balanced evenly between Democrat and Republican voters. Several of the proposed maps bring that gap down to under 1%.

Black elected officials and civil rights leaders in Detroit on Tuesday still argued that the resulting draft maps, however, would disenfranchise Black voters in the city. State Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, said there will be too few Black voters to elect Black candidates if any of the proposed maps are approved.

“This was a conscious effort to try and meet what they thought was the criteria in drawing these maps,” he said. “We’re here to say collectively that not only is that not acceptable but that’s not what’s supposed to be done.”

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP, agreed, saying the maps are "designed not to include us but to exclude us."

“We have come too far to lose anything. We don’t want to be stacked up, we don’t crack out, we don’t want to be packed out, we don’t want to be racked up. We want maps that reflect who we are," he said.

Speaking to the Free Press earlier in the day, Sheffield noted that the presentation of the maps is particularly threatening after former President Donald Trump and his supporters attempted to disenfranchise Detroit voters through unfounded claims of corruption in last year's election. Trump actually performed better in the city than he had four years previously.

Some in attendance on Tuesday even went so far as to suggest that the Republicans who drew the lines in 2011 treated Detroit voters more favorably than the members of Michigan’s redistricting commission who are charged with drawing fair maps based on public input.

“What we currently have right now… is much better than what these commissioners are doing,” said state Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit.

———

Trending Food Videos

Recommended for you

Loading...
Loading...