Communities of Interest, or COIs, will have an influential voice in the drawing of legislative district boundaries. (Shutterstock photo)

Detroiters will have the opportunity to formally address the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission on June 15 and June 17. The commission is also expected to meet in Novi on June 8 and Dearborn on June 10.

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The commission expanded the number of constitutionally required public hearings across the state from 10 to 16 due to requests for more public engagement. At least five more meetings will be added to solicit public feedback once the commission has drafted proposed maps. Michigan voters approved the creation of the commission in 2018 to help prevent legislative gerrymandering. As a caveat, voters required the commission to prioritize Communities of Interest, or COIs, so that residents will have an influential voice in the drawing of legislative district boundaries. These COIs will represent resident voices during the proposed public hearings this summer. In preparation, local nonprofits are reaching out to voters to begin organizing.

Members of the commission are registered voters who applied and were randomly selected by a computer system. The 13 members must reflect Michigan voters by political party, race, age, and gender. Since the commission was seated last fall, it has hired an executive director, general counsel, a communications director, and requested proposals for district-line-drawing services. Now through November, the commission is expected to meet on a weekly basis to engage Michigan voters to prepare for deciding the boundaries of congressional districts. Public comment periods are still held during the commission’s weekly meetings.

Prioritizing COIs, or groups of people who are bound together by local circumstances, is to ensure that more voices are heard in the process. This includes but is not limited to shared cultural, historical, and economic interests. Data from the federal 2020 census will also be used to draw the lines.

Norman Clement, founder of the voter engagement nonprofit Detroit Change Initiative, said during a press conference in February that this is the time for Detroiters to voice the need for safe schools, reducing income inequality and crime, and improvements in race relations and job creation in the city. The Detroit Change Initiative is one of several local nonprofits encouraging Detroit voters to get involved.

“We are confident the redistricting process will lead to a fair, accurate and effective representation,” he said. “We’re encouraged to take advantage of many opportunities to participate and engage in all phases of the redistricting process.”

Though intended to unite voices, the guidelines for COIs remain ambiguous and could be confusing. It’s unclear how the commission will prioritize COI concerns without minimizing or splitting these groups across district lines.

Tomas Ivacko, executive director of the Center for Local State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan, said COIs can have an “extremely broad” common bond that may need legislative or political representation.

“You can imagine in Southwest Detroit — with all of the air pollution, water pollution — that could easily constitute as a Community of Interest,” Ivacko said. “It’s a group of people who live in a particular area and share a common bond that’s extremely unfortunate: a significant toxic pollution. They may want to be kept together in order to have the most influence they can have on a political representative in Lansing or in Washington.”

The Center for Local State and Urban Policy has published student-led reports and policy briefs about the state’s new commission. In a February 2021 survey, it was found that nearly half of local government leaders in Michigan were unaware of potential COIs within their districts and were skeptical of their value in the line-drawing process.

Because COIs are a new concept in Michigan, there is great potential for a wide range of interests. Students at the University of Michigan constructed a database of at least 1,200 potential types of COIs. Their priorities ranged from religion, race and ethnicity, neighborhood, education, historically focused, language, food, and housing. Even small-business owners may consider joining a COI through their local Chamber of Commerce, though Ivacko cautions small businesses not to approach larger associations as it may stretch the geographic space of the community too far.  

Part of local government skepticism could be due to local jurisdictions being considered a lower priority in the line-drawing process than in the past. There’s also a general misunderstanding of how the broad topics within a COI will be prioritized while grouping swaths of people together. Therefore, Ivacko believes more public outreach and education is needed so that voters will be ready to present this summer.

 “We’re encouraging everybody to get involved from communities of interest, individual residents of Michigan and local governments,” Ivacko said.  

Residents may also be part of more than one COI at a time. The Michigan Nonprofit Association is creating a coalition of nonprofits across the state to educate residents and help them align within specific COIs. This includes the Detroit Change Initiative. The coalition hopes to engage underrepresented communities to ensure they have a voice in the decision-making process, particularly from a racial-equity perspective.

The Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation is also part of the coalition. At the announcement of the coalition, Director Cindy Gamboa said now is the time for Detroiters to “show up” for increased school funding and better representation in Lansing.

“So many important policy decisions are made in Lansing, and it’s time for communities of color to have a seat at that table,” she said.

Olivia Lewis is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. She was formerly a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer and the Indianapolis Star. She has also worked in philanthropy for the Kresge Foundation, the Council...

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