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Princeton team grades proposed Michigan political districts on partisan fairness, competitiveness

Michigan 2021 Draft House Ballot (Commissioner Clark), Below is a map of one of the proposed maps with districts color-coded by party. Much of the map is red denoting Republican-majority districts with some smaller blue districts mostly concentrated around Detroit. On the right, is a series of rows starting with "Overall Grade: B", "Partisan Fairness: A, no advantage," "Competitiveness: C, similarly competitive relative to other maps that could have been drawn," "Geographic Features: F, non-compact districts, more county splits than typical"
Princeton Gerrymandering Project
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project uses historical election data to analyze proposed maps on a variety of factors.

Michigan’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is running out of time to finalize the political maps that will be used in the state for the next decade.

The commission is holding more public hearings this week on a slate of draft maps defining state House, Senate and congressional districts.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project does nonpartisan analysis to understand and eliminate gerrymandering. Team members graded the proposed Michigan maps on partisan fairness, competitiveness and their geography.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with Adam Podowitz-Thomas, a senior legal strategist with the project.

Interview Highlights

On how the project grades maps

We're looking at things like "county splits," so how many times a line crosses a county boundary, as well as "compactness," which looks at how sort of snaking the district is or how evenly shaped it is. Those are those are sort of easy to understand. We also score on partisan fairness which looks at how the district would perform as we anticipate in future elections. And it does that by looking at previous election results and then comparing it to an ensemble of maps that we've generated using a computer.

On criticism that the proposed maps do not have enough majority-minority districts

I definitely think that the communities that are speaking out, are speaking to a real need, that they have to have their voices heard, and that they're wanting to have representatives that represent them going forward for the next decade. So even if it's not a VRA problem, it may be a problem from a communities of interest perspective. And that definitely is something that the commission should take into consideration.

On one of the issues the commission has run into

I think that the commission may have done lately, that maybe making it harder for them is just the number of drafts that are currently available. I think it's really hard for the public to process the number of options that are currently before them and provide real substantive comments. When you have eight or nine maps you need to look at, it's sort of hard to tell the difference between them and say, like, "This is what I like about this one, or this is what I don't like about a different map." So, it seems like it would have been more useful for them to narrow it down. But it is also good that they've given so many choices to the public to look at.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

Michigan’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is running out of time to finalize the political maps that will be used in the state for the next decade.

The commission is holding more public hearings this week on a slate of draft maps defining state House, Senate and congressional districts.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project does nonpartisan analysis to understand and eliminate gerrymandering. Team members graded the proposed Michigan maps on partisan fairness, competitiveness and their geography.

Adam Podowitz-Thomas is a senior legal strategist with the project, and he joins me now. Thank you for being here.

Adam Podowitz-Thomas: Thank you for having me.

Saliby: Can you give me a little background into how the team grades these maps?

Podowitz-Thomas: Sure. So, we grade on a couple different metrics, probably the easiest one to understand is geography. We're looking at things like "county splits," so how many times a line crosses a county boundary, as well as "compactness," which looks at how sort of snaking the district is or how evenly shaped it is. Those are those are sort of easy to understand.

We generate over 1 million maps, and then we compare the proposed maps to those 1 million [and] sort of see whether the proposed map is an outlier or whether it's sort of falls within the average of what we would expect for partisan performance.

We also score on partisan fairness which looks at how the district would perform as we anticipate in future elections. And it does that by looking at previous election results and then comparing it to an ensemble of maps that we've generated using a computer.

So, we generate over 1 million maps, and then we compare the proposed maps to those 1 million [and] sort of see whether the proposed map is an outlier or whether it sort of falls within the average of what we would expect for partisan performance.

Saliby: And it seems like most of these maps, they're either pretty neutral on partisan fairness, or they have a slight Democratic advantage or a slight Republican advantage, but they're not, nothing is egregious?

Podowitz-Thomas: I would say that's right, particularly compared to what we've seen in some other states. All of the maps proposed by the Michigan commission are sort of right within the fair range that we would expect.

Saliby: The commission has received a lot of criticism from people saying these maps do not follow the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or have enough majority-minority districts. Is that something that the maps have issues with based on your analysis?

Podowitz-Thomas: So, our analysis doesn't, I should be clear, we don't grade based on minority performance. We specifically say that's something that we think that the communities are, sort of, best placed in order to address. But we do look at those numbers, and we consider them when we're talking about the maps.

You know, it's not necessarily super clear to us how the maps would perform if they were to be challenged on a legal basis under the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Every congressional map, for example, includes two districts where the African American population would be at or about 40%, which is very possibly going to be a sufficient population for those districts to elect Black candidates of choice, right?

But for the state legislative maps, it's a little harder, right? Because you're talking about a broader array of communities. Obviously, when you talk about smaller districts, it's a little more important that other ethnic groups and minority groups are considered and comply with the VRA.

I definitely think that the communities that are speaking out, are speaking to a real need, that they have to have their voices heard, and that they're wanting to have representatives that represent them going forward for the next decade.

And so, we're not sure. I definitely think that the communities that are speaking out, are speaking to a real need, that they have to have their voices heard, and that they're wanting to have representatives that represent them going forward for the next decade. So even if it's not a VRA problem, it may be a problem from a communities of interest perspective. And that definitely is something that the commission should take into consideration.

Saliby: This is the first time Michigan has an independent commission doing redistricting. There are other states who have done this before.

Do you think Michigan's commission members are falling into some common pitfalls for groups like this given the lack of experience or institutional knowledge?

Podowitz-Thomas: So, I think in general, it seems like the process has gone pretty smoothly, from an outsider's perspective. I think that they, the commission has been very transparent in their map drawing.

So, for example, one of the things that the commission was critiqued on earlier in the process was that the maps were perceived of as maybe having a Republican bias. But that was because they had very transparently shown every step of the map drawing, and they had only considered partisan fairness later in the process. So, people were critiquing an early draft of the map.

I do think that that's something that a lot of other commissions don't do is maybe show as many drafts to the public, and so that could have led to public blowback that wasn't deserved. The other thing that I think that the commission may have done lately, that maybe making it harder for them is just the number of drafts that are currently available. I think it's really hard for the public to process the number of options that are currently before them and provide real substantive comment.

It seems like it would have been more useful for them to narrow it down. But it is also good that they've given so many choices to the public to look at.

When you have eight or nine maps you need to look at, it's sort of hard to tell the difference between them and say, like, "This is what I like about this one, or this is what I don't like about a different map."

So, it seems like it would have been more useful for them to narrow it down. But it is also good that they've given so many choices to the public to look at.

Saliby: And what options does the commission have to retool these maps in a short period of time? I believe they're going to take a vote on November 5 before a final round of public input and then a final vote at the end of the year.

Podowitz-Thomas: I think that their ability to completely redraw the maps is basically gone, right? That the final version really needs to look like whatever they vote on on November 5, but there is an opportunity to still tweak, to follow public comment, you know.

If there's overwhelming sentiment from the public that certain communities were split in ways that are unfair or that they're really concerned about VRA compliance, I think the commission still has an opportunity to make sure that they shore up those requirements, and frankly, should do so.

If there's overwhelming sentiment from the public that certain communities were split in ways that are unfair or that they're really concerned about VRA compliance, I think the commission still has an opportunity to make sure that they shore up those requirements, and frankly, should do so.

I mean, I think the point of the public comment period is to listen to what the public's saying and to make those adjustments.

Saliby: Adam Podowitz-Thomas is a Senior Legal Strategist for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. Thank you for joining me.

Podowitz-Thomas: Thanks.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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