OPINION

Redistricting panel pushing luck with its districts for minorities

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Michigan’s largest city, Detroit, could have none of its residents sitting in the state Legislature. 

Under the draft maps the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission have out for public comment, it’s theoretically possible. Not probable, but possible. Actually, it’s possible Lansing could, too.

These Holiday Inn Express map-drawers found a way to not draw a single state Senate or state House map that is completely encased within a city of 674,841 people. Not one. 

But that’s not the biggest issue with the commission’s first pass at drawing Michigan’s next legislative maps. 

That’s reserved for its unnecessary testing of a legal theory that could prompt a judge to throw out its maps and draw them instead. This experiment in Michigan of having your average Joe and Jane draw redistricting lines would be a failure.

It could happen, and he’s why.

Back when Lyndon Johnson was president in the 1960s, the U.S. Voting Rights Act was crafted to prevent Blacks (or any other racial minority) from being screwed out of representation. A term “majority-minority districts” was coined. 

It means that minorities must have an opportunity to elect one of their own to the Legislature or Congress. Traditionally in Michigan, that’s meant districts made up of at least 50% plus one of a certain minority.

If a state House district has roughly 90,000 people, 45,001 must be of the same racial minority.

The redistricting commission isn’t rolling that way. Its advisers tell them if a district has as few as 40% in a racial minority and there’s a high likelihood a minority will be elected in a district, that’s good enough.

Michigan has two congressional, five state Senate and 12 state House majority-minority districts. To prevent regression, the 2021 maps should have the same breakdown. Instead, using the 50%-plus-one standard, there’s zero congressional, zero state Senate and two state House majority minority districts.

Using the 40% standard, there’s up to 15 majority minority districts.

That’s causing a problem in MoTown. Detroiters are seeing their legislative districts start in Detroit and end in Birmingham or Farmington Hills or Taylor or Warren.

Elections expert Ed Sarpolus said if these maps are approved, Black voters in Detroit would have a “legitimate” legal challenge.

A pair of Michigan State University redistricting experts raised questions this week about the maps, as well.

Economics Professor Jon Eguia said even if the commission is right on its theory, it doesn’t have enough evidence to prove a Metro Detroit district with a 40% Black population would be more likely to elect a Black legislator.

“This is an unusual approach,” he said, adding that the commission is putting “a lot of confidence” in an “untested” theory based on the “weak evidence” of one prior primary election, as opposed to numerous past elections.

Proposal 2 of 2018 also required the commission to put heavy emphasis on keeping together “communities of interest.” This fairly nebulous term hasn’t been defined, but various other racial groups are being kept together under the “COI” banner.

Whether it’s the Bangladeshi population, the Hispanic population in Detroit, the Arab population in Dearborn or the Asian Americans in Troy, communities have been kept together.

When it comes to keeping Blacks together in Detroit, however … the same vigilance hasn’t been taken, Eguia said.

What does Voters Not Politicians, the group that gave us the redistricting commission, think of all this? Complying with the Voting Rights Act is No. 2 on its list of criteria it had passed into the state Constitution after making sure each district has roughly the same number of people.

Following “communities of interest” was No. 3 on the list.

Voters Not Politicians is pushing the boundaries of its credibility by urging the commission to skip to No. 4 on the list of criteria they created. It wants the commission to focus on “partisan fairness.”

Interestingly, Eguia said the maps “are in the ballpark of what you would expect” on partisan fairness.

I think we all figured the commission’s final process would go down in court. What’s surprising is how easy the commission is making it to do that.

(Kyle Melinn, of the Capitol news service MIRS, can be emailed at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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