LANSING — Pressure is mounting but time is short for the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to change draft legislative maps that have widely panned since their completion last week.
The 13-member panel is facing criticism that its maps don’t follow the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which intends to set aside majority-minority districts to allow people of color to elect candidates of their choice.
The executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, John Johnson, warned the commission on Wednesday the drafts violate the federal law because they eliminate almost all of the current 17 majority-minority legislative districts, as well as the two majority-Black congressional districts.
“Make no mistake: the decisions you make and the lines you draw will either protect the rights of minorities or ensure that for a decade to come, some Michigan voters will no longer have a voice in decisions that directly impact their lives,” Johnson said in a statement.
“We urge you to meet this test of fairness and accountability, and rectify the Voting Rights Act violations inherent in the maps under consideration.”
Following the advice of its voting rights attorney, and its partisan fairness expert, the commission has drawn only one district in which the population of Black voters is over 50 percent.
The commission is drawing the legislative maps as part of a public process for the first time this year. Voters in 2018 created the citizen group to wrest the process away from politicians, who largely drew the maps in secret and created some of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation.
On Wednesday, the commission hosted its first map hearing, where they heard over and over from Detroiters who called the maps “racist.”
Rebecca Szetela, an independent who is chair of the commission, told reporters in Lansing on Thursday she was “affected” by the comments.
“When you hear comments like that, you have to listen to them and you have to respect the concerns and look into it,” Szetela said.
She added she thinks the commission should take a step back and reconsider the maps.
“I want to pause, I want to analyze what’s being said, I want to think about it, I want the rest of our commissioners to think about it, and then formulate a response,” she said.
Public hearings are continuing into next week, but the commission is under a tight deadline.
According to its timetable, the panel would have only the week of Nov. 1 to make changes.
Members are expected to vote on the proposed maps on Nov. 5, before publishing the maps for a 45-day public comment period.
After that period, the commission is expected to vote on the final maps no earlier than Dec. 30.
Steve Lett, an independent on the commission, told reporters Thursday the commission’s districts follow the law.
When asked whether he thought the commission’s draft would change from the current version, Lett said he’s “sure we’re gonna make some changes.”
But he said it’s unlikely the commission would toss out the drafts altogether.
“What people don’t consider is that if you make a change in a district, then you’ve got to change all the other districts,” Lett said.
But M.C. Rothorn, a Democrat on the commission, told reporters there are some changes that are easier to make.
One of them is making sure the Bangladeshi community in southeast Michigan is all in a district.
Under the proposed congressional and state Senate maps, the community remains together. But the House district leaves out about four blocks near Detroit.
Members of the community — about 5,000 people in Hamtramck and Detroit — have come forward and asked the commission to reconsider it.
Rothorn said the commission wants to get it right.
“We don’t intend to advance any maps that are illegal,” Rothorn said.