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Redistricting commission drafts new maps against tight deadline

One of the draft legislative district maps for state House districts in Metro Detroit
Courtesy
/
Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission
Commissioners drafted several new maps in an attempt to fix problems that a federal court found with legislative maps drawn for Metro Detroit districts in 2021.

Over the past month, the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission has been redrawing legislative maps for seven state House districts around Metro Detroit.

That’s because a federal court found them to be unconstitutional.

Now, these new districts are up for public comment. WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with Ben Solis who has been covering the redistricting commission for Gongwer News Service.

Interview Highlights

On why these maps were thrown out

That ruling meant that during their process in 2021, the commission used race and racial targets in certain areas to comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act, per their attorneys advice.

That turned out to be not so great advice because a federal three-judge panel on this lawsuit, Agee v. Benson, found pretty, pretty swiftly that the use of that target, those racial targets, violated the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause.

On how the commission is balancing constitutional and Voting Rights Acts requirements

The unfortunate thing is that several of those maps that they did draw race blind, to meet the judge's order caused many of the maps to be out of compliance with the VRA, causing them to have to go back again, consider race this time, and try to make small narrowly tailored adjustments to the lines as they went along, which did freak out the commissioners quite a bit because they were wary of bringing up the concept of race. And here they are, again, having to talk about it primarily.

On what's next in the process

They have to be dealt with this by early March. The court wants these maps adopted and in the can, one that works for them meets the court's order, but still, you know, adheres to this goal of having a fair map. That is got to be done by the April filing deadline for candidates. So, they're going to be scrambling candidates, I mean. But they have completed at least their first little bit. The maps were due to the court on Friday, and they met that deadline. Now, they go out for public comment. That period will last until the end of February.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: Over the past month, the state’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission has been redrawing legislative maps for seven state House districts around Metro Detroit.

That’s because a federal court found them to be unconstitutional.

Now, these new districts are up for public comment. Ben Solis has been covering the commission for Gongwer News Service, and he joins me now to talk about these new maps. Thank you for joining me.

Ben Solis: Thank you for having me.

Saliby: The maps were drawn in 2021, and they were deemed unconstitutional at the end of last year because a court found that they were drawn predominantly on the basis of race. Can you explain what that ruling means?

Solis: The ruling means that, first and foremost, they have to go back to the drawing board, which we're seeing now. But that ruling meant that during their process in 2021, the commission used race and racial targets in certain areas to comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act, per their attorney's advice.

That turned out to be not so great advice because a federal three judge panel on this lawsuit, Agee v. Benson, found pretty, pretty swiftly that the use of that target, those racial targets, violated the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause.

There was an argument made by the plaintiffs in that case for the VRA. There were several VRA claims, but those didn't survive. But the panel did find that they violated the Equal Protection Clause.

Saliby: So, it seems like the commissioners have kind of been having to thread the needle now between the Constitution, the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act.

So, how have they tried to do that with these new maps that they've been working on? Because I have heard race come up as a point of conversation when discussing how they're drawing these districts?

Solis: Yeah, first and foremost, the judge's order, the three-judge panel's order was to go back to the drawing board to draw these again without race as a consideration at all. So, they had to go back and use things that they were drawing for the constitutional criteria, such as communities of interest, equal population, things like that.

However, the Voting Rights Act is ranked second in their constitutional criteria, so they were going to have to go back and meet the VRA, no matter what. The issue there is that when they tried to meet the VRA the first time since it was a second ranked criteria, that's when they used race to draw these lines.

So, they were kind of hamstrung with their hands kind of tied behind their back saying, "You have to go back out and draw these lines again. You have to use all the other considerations, but we don't even want you even looking at the VRA or race at all as you plot these lines."

Now, the caveat is that they're going to have to comply with the VRA no matter what. That is federal law. That is the second ranked criteria in our constitution for this process.

So, now they're looking back and had VRA analysis on all the maps that they drew race blind. The unfortunate thing is that several of those maps that they did draw race blind, to meet the judge's order caused many of the maps to be out of compliance with the VRA, causing them to have to go back again, consider race this time, and try to make small narrowly tailored adjustments to the lines as they went along, which did freak out the commissioners quite a bit because they were wary of bringing up the concept of race. And here they are, again, having to talk about it primarily.

Saliby: How different are these new maps? I know they haven't settled on one final one as we're in this public comment period, but how different are they to the ones that were drawn in 2021?

Solis: It depends. Some of them are drawn with the "Hickory" map, which is what the map that passed in 2021 as a template. Some commissioners questioned doing that too because you mean you're using a comparison map of districts that were thrown out by the court. So, some of them do align closely. There was an experiment that several of the commissioners tried to embark on of trying to lock out all the surrounding districts other than the seven that they had to redraw. And that is, you know, a map that is primarily just in line with the "Hickory" map, a few judge adjustments here and there.

Other ones are completely redrawn. There are several districts that were not in the court's order that have some amount of changes to them, not many, because I think that they realized that, you know, they can't go back and redraw the entire map. They had to focus on the seven districts and make them whole, but you know, as we learned, in the last phase, any adjustments that you make to any districts, you're going to have further downstream consequences to districts. So, I think that they've balanced that pretty well.

But you know, for the most part, these maps are varied. They have different considerations communities of interest wise. They have different considerations VRA-wise. Only three of them are VRA compliant out of the nine that they put forward. As we talked about earlier, there was several that were not VRA compliant. They're still moving forward with those maps.

So even though we have these maps, now, they still have to go out for public comment, and they could change quite a bit again. So yes, they're quite different across the board. But some of them are similar enough. And that's what they hope that people, when they put them out for public comment will see those differences, see the similarities and try to pick ones that they like that do kind of meet all of their checkbox.

Saliby: Could you speak to when this process is expected to end because these maps are going to be used for elections that are happening months from now, in November for this year's elections?

Solis: They have to be dealt with this by early March. The court wants these maps adopted and in the can, one that works for them meets the court's order, but still, you know, adheres to this goal of having a fair map. That is got to be done by the April filing deadline for candidates. So, they're going to be scrambling candidates, I mean.

But they have completed at least their first little bit. The maps were due to the court on Friday, and they met that deadline. Now, they go out for public comment. That period will last until the end of February.

And they are going to begin going out in front of the public again, having meetings in Detroit to try to shop these now. That won't happen for a couple of weeks. But you know, people can start to kind of go on their mapping portal and see these maps now to start that process.

Saliby: Ben Solis reports for Gongwer News Service. Thank you for joining me.

Saliby: Thank you for having me.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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