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Published in Economic Development

Redistricting commission gears up for drawing new legislative boundaries

BY Sunday, January 17, 2021 06:16pm

The next 10 months will culminate in a landmark year for Michigan politically as new legislative district boundaries are drawn by an independent commission tasked with quashing partisan gerrymandering.

The next several months will be filled with public comment and expert insight, as the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is required to hold 10 public hearings before maps are drawn, and five more after maps are drawn. The Proposal 2 constitutional amendment approved by 61 percent of Michigan voters in 2018 will redraw the state’s congressional, state Senate and state House districts.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for our state to be much more fair, transparent and nonpartisan about this issue,” said Sue Hammersmith, who was selected last month to be executive director of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. 

Hammersmith is the president of Blissfield-based nonprofit consulting firm Better Philanthropy LLC and has worked in the nonprofit space in Ohio and Michigan for more than 30 years, most recently as the president of the Lenawee Community Foundation. She will oversee the public comment and map-drawing process over the next 10 months.

The 13-member commission — made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and five who don’t identify with a major political party — first met in September and has five scheduled meetings in January. As of late December, the commission had already received “a few hundred pages” of public comment, Hammersmith said.

Over the course of the year, various experts will be involved in the map-drawing process after a request for proposals is issued. Hammersmith said commission members have already received orientation from officials in California and Arizona with similar redistricting commissions.

The new districts will be drawn based on an equal population (about 780,000), compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, a single continuous shape and not giving an unfair advantage to any political party or candidate.

The law also requires the commission to consider “communities of interest,” or areas with shared interests, including geographic, economic and cultural similarities.

“The only way to understand where our community boundaries are is to gather public input,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, which organized the Prop 2 ballot initiative.

The new boundaries will primarily rely on 2020 Census data. Every 10 years following the U.S. Census, legislative districts are redrawn to reflect population changes. Historically, that information has come in around Feb. 1, although officials anticipate the 2020 data to come in around June or July.

“There’s definitely a delay there, but at the same time, most of (the commission’s) work can be done without the final Census data,” Wang said of tasks such as establishing community boundaries and generating maps using old population data.

Hammersmith added that it will make the commission’s deadlines “somewhat tighter than we anticipated. We’ll have to be very efficient at getting everything we can get done ahead of that Census data.”

District changes, challenges

The new maps will be in effect for the August 2022 primary. While political analysts have speculated, it remains unclear how the final state House, Senate and congressional districts will be drawn. For example, some have predicted shifts among West Michigan’s 2nd, 3rd and 6th congressional districts, currently held by Republican Congressmen Bill Huizenga, Peter Meijer and Fred Upton, respectively.

However, Michigan’s slow population growth since 2010 — while other states have seen growing populations — likely means the state will lose one of its 14 congressional districts.

“Everyone I’ve ever talked to has said we’ll lose a congressional district,” Wang said. “That’s going to be huge.”

Lansing-based political newsletter Gongwer reported in November that West Michigan’s population growth, particularly in Kent and Ottawa counties, could mean Meijer picks up a Kent County community from Huizenga while also losing Calhoun County.

State Republicans have controlled the past two reapportionments, and have drawn districts to their benefit, even though Michigan’s population shifts have now led to a 7-7 split in the congressional delegation. Former Michigan Republican Party Executive Director Jeff Timmer, who is now a senior adviser with the Lincoln Project, told Bridge Michigan this month that the process of creating “safe” districts for candidates has fueled the hyper-partisan nature of politics today.

That hyper-partisanship has continued to play out around the redistricting commission.

Since Prop 2 passed, opponents have attempted to chip away at the commission’s integrity, either in public forums or lawsuits. In July, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit from Michigan Republicans seeking to block the commission.

Wang said she expects the opposition to continue, particularly with criticism about whether the commission and the process overall will remain nonpartisan.

“There’s definitely interest by some people to undermine people’s faith in it,” Wang said. “At the end of the day, the (state) Constitution has all these safeguards in place.”

She added that, based on public meetings so far, the commission is in “really good shape.”

“All 13 members have really stressed during the public meetings that they really take this job seriously,” Wang said. “They know they’re stewards of this voter-approved process and want to conduct themselves in a way that inspires public confidence.” 

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