Misha Stallworth, 31, is the deputy chief executive officer of CitizenDetroit, a local organization that helps Detroit voters understand democratic processes and engage in civic life. (Photo courtesy of Misha Stallworth)

Application forms for Michigan’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission have been available for months, yet the applicant pool remains predominantly white, male, and over the age of 55.

While the number of Wayne County applicants has doubled since late February, younger residents and people of color are still disproportionately represented. The Secretary of State’s online application portal closes June 1. Local organizations say they continue to educate Detroiters on the significance of the commission. Much of the work has focused on spreading accurate and trusted information, being a registered voter is the only qualification.

Michigan voters supported a constitutional amendment to create an independent citizens redistricting commission in 2018. The commission will draw district lines for Michigan’s House of Representatives, Michigan Senate, and U.S. Congress, every 10 years. The commission is expected to begin their work in October and new district lines will be used in the 2022 election. Those selected to be on the commission will receive a $40,000 stipend for their time. 

“Detroiters are effectively represented right now … I don’t think we would be if we lost a Congressperson.” – Misha Stallworth, DPSCD School Board

The Detroit Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has hosted pep rallies, held convenings and shared information through social media in partnership with local entities of the National Pan-Hellenic Council to educate Detroiters on the commission. Advocating for equity in the census, reapportionment and redistricting processes are within the local NAACP’s strategic priorities. The nonpartisan organization is against gerrymandering and supports an independent citizens redistricting commission.

Kamilia Landry, executive director of the NAACP Detroit branch, said the application numbers disproportionately reflect African-Americans’ civic involvement.

“We don’t have a voice in the process, there’s no accountability, no fairness, and above all it’s not transparent.” – Shawn Manley, Detroit organizer

According to the Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey, there were almost 2 million Michigan residents ages of 20 to 34 in 2018 with almost 13 percent of that population living in Detroit alone. Of the 5,761 applications processed by May 21, fewer than 500 applicants were between 18 and  34 and less than 1,000 applicants were people of color.

Michigan’s Office of the Secretary of State (SoS) is managing the redistricting commission’s application process through RedistrictingMichigan.org. The office did not have demographic data of applicants at the city level.

Landry said some Detroiters just need to hear the information from a trusted source.

“I constantly hear ‘Thank you for putting it in plain language, I understand exactly what it is and now I want to get involved’,” Landry said.

The commission is tied to the Census. The city, and others, have advocated for a complete census count as the total population count will determine the amount of federal dollars made available to the city, the number of congressional representatives for the state, and the number of districts the commission will map. Thirteen commissioners will be chosen to listen to public opinion and assist experts in drawing district lines across the state.

Detroit is split between the 13th and 14th congressional districts represented by Rashida Tlaib and Brenda Lawrence. Due to the city’s continuous population decline and potential to lose a congressional House seat, Detroiters say representation for the state’s largest city is critically important.

Misha Stallworth, deputy chief executive officer of CitizenDetroit, said Detroiters are “absolutely engaged” civically, but that there is an education gap regarding the democratic process.

“When we get beyond voting and into other opportunities for engagement we don’t see as much participation,” she said.

Stallworth, who sits on Detroit Public Schools Community District school board, said her leadership roles emphasize her personal values and belief that every person should have access to good information. She said when residents feel like they don’t have power they can feel frustrated and angry, channeling those emotions to those who are supposed to be making decisions on their behalf.

“Detroiters are effectively represented right now,” Stallworth said. “But I don’t think we would be if we lost a Congressperson.”

CitizenDetroit is an inform-and-engage organization. They provide accurate and unbiased information on political processes to help Detroiters think critically about issues and take civic action.

CitizenDetroit usually hosts community events to help residents ensure their voices are heard in government for an effective democratic process. However, the organization is strategizing a more digital approach given the spread of COVID-19.

The deputy CEO said originally the commission was communicated as a desired group of statisticians and demographers that routinely traveled the state, deterring many from applying. Stallworth said residents need to know that commissioners can determine their own travel, will be paid a stipend, and much of their time will be spent listening to public opinion; all of which make the job less intimidating for some Detroiters.

Shawn Manley, 46, said he first heard about gerrymandering and mapping district lines as a teenager at Mumford High School. He said even then, it didn’t make sense.

Years later, he attended a CitizenDetroit meeting where Voters Not Politicians representatives were invited to share information about Proposal 2 on the 2018 ballot. The nonprofit organization gained hundreds of volunteers and supporters in the Greater Detroit area that year, including Manley.

“That day I signed up, I wanted to end gerrymandering” Manley said. “I wanted to help make a change.”

Shawn Manley (left) sits on the Voters Not Politicians Volunteer Advisory Council. The Detroit native voluntarily knocked on doors across Michigan’s 13th and 14th congressional districts. Photo provided by Shawn Manley)

Voters Not Politicians is a pro-democracy organization that launched the statewide anti-gerrymandering campaign. The proposal passed with 61 percent of the vote to create the independent citizens redistricting commission.

Manley, who lives in Michigan’s 14th district, said he voluntarily knocked on doors to encourage voters to participate and has discussed the commission with his friends. The Detroit native said explaining the application process and that citizens don’t need a college degree to participate, has helped many understand they are qualified for the role.

“I told them [politicians] draw these maps behind closed doors,” Manley said. “We have an unfair advantage, we don’t have a voice in the process, there’s no accountability, no fairness, and above all it’s not transparent.”

Manley applied to be a member of the commission on the first day that applications were available. Since the spread of COVID-19, he now volunteers as a free notary to help others submit their applications online. He’s also a member of Voters Not Politicians’ Volunteer Advisory Council.

Manley said he would congratulate any Detroiter who applies to be a commissioner.

“We want a voice here in Detroit,” he 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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