Michigan redistricting commission relents, creates majority-Black maps for House

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Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission member Brittni Kellom (pictured in top row center) said the latest changes to the maps are in response to comments from Detroiters. She is a Democrat from Detroit. (Bridge photo by Elaine Cromie)

LANSING— After pushback from African-American leaders over political districts, Michigan’s redistricting panel on Thursday proposed a new state House configuration that creates majority-Black districts in Detroit.

The latest map comes after weeks of back and forth between Detroit-area commissioners and the panel, and after hundreds of concerns regarding the commission’s handling of the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 law designed to allow people of color to elect representatives of their choosing.

Commissioner Brittni Kellom, a Democrat from Detroit, told the 13-member panel the latest changes “make us more responsive to the comments in the community of Detroit.

“One thing that I can stand by is that most, if not all, of the neighborhoods in Detroit are back together.”

Under the proposed maps passed Thursday, called Magnolia, the state would have a handful of legislative districts with a Black voting age population over 50 percent. Most of the districts are in Detroit.


Although that would be significantly less than the state’s current 17 majority-Black state legislative districts, it’s an increase on what the commission has so far proposed.

The Magnolia map creates 56 districts that lean Democratic in the House and 54 that favor Republicans. The chamber is now controlled by Republicans 57-52.

As of Thursday, the commission had approved three maps apiece for the state House, Senate and Congress.

The commission hopes to approve all maps by Friday before starting a 45-day comment period. Final approval is expected by Dec. 30.

Besides the creation of majority-minority districts, the new House map also has different borders for Ann Arbor and Livingston County.

For weeks, the commission has been engulfed in controversy after proposing congressional, state House and state Senate maps that did not create any majority-Black districts.

Over and over, the commission heard from leaders and Detroit residents who said the lack of majority-Black districts would make it too difficult to elect their candidates of choice because districts extend into suburbs.

The commission has followed the advice of Lisa Handley, a partisan fairness consultant, and of Bruce Adelson, a voting rights attorney.

Until recent days, both have recommended the panel create districts in Detroit with a Black population between 40 percent to 45 percent, arguing that anything more could be deemed racial gerrymandering.

But this week, Adelson said the commission could draw districts that have a Black voting age population of up to 55 percent, as long as it’s not meant to dilute their vote and protects communities of interest.

State Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, who has advocated for different districts for Black residents, told reporters prior to the vote the Magnolia map was a good first step.

“We want to see as many people of color, and Black people in particular, being represented in our communities as they already are,” Yancey said.

Panel at odds with attorney

The new map emerged after yet another marathon session by commissioners, and another controversy over rules and deadlines for the panel that was created in 2018 to draw the maps that last for 10 years.

Before then, the party in power in Lansing handled redistricting after the decennial census, creating legislative boundaries so skewed that Republicans maintained power in the Legislature despite sometimes getting fewer overall votes than Democrats.

The commission, which was created by a voter-approved constitutional amendment, voted Thursday to amend rules and allow commissioners until noon Monday to create their own redistricting maps.

Until then, many commissioners believed they had until Dec. 30.

The new rules, though, require all maps to undergo a 45-day public comment period — despite language from the state constitution that would suggest otherwise.

The change was led by Commissioner Steve Lett, an independent who is an attorney, and Rebecca Szetela, an independent who serves as chair of the commission.

Lett said not giving individual maps a 45-day public comment period would mean they were introduced “totally out of thin air.”

Szetela told commissioners the panel was not amending the constitution, but just “voting on an interpretation.

“We’re clarifying our interpretation of the statute, or the constitutional amendment,” Szetela said. “We are not rewriting or redefining the constitution, we’re just determining how we are going to interpret it.”

The changes buck the advice of the commission’s general counsel Julianne Pastula, who told members she sees “no language allowing” the change.

After the vote, some commissioners expressed concerns.

“I feel like we do not have the right to interpret the constitution,” said Commissioner Cynthia Orton, a Republican. “I feel like we do not have a right to vote on limiting commissioners.”

Tony Daunt, the executive director of conservative advocacy group FAIR Maps, told Bridge Michigan the constitutional amendment that created the commission left too much room for interpretation.

“What that entire process showed is that the drafting, and the drafters, of this (constitutional) amendment put forward a floppy Rube Goldberg contraption of an amendment,” Daunt said.

“I think a lot of the confusion and certainly the complete lack of objective standards of leaving it up to a bunch of subjective interpreters was on purpose.”

Daunt has unsuccessfully sued the state to overturn the creation of the commission.

This is the latest dispute involving the commission.

Last week, the commission decided to go in a closed session and privately discuss two legal memos regarding the Voting Rights Act and the history of discrimination in Michigan.

Some state lawmakers have asked Attorney General Dana Nessel for a ruling on the legality of the closed session.

This week, commissioners have exchanged sharp words over the districts.

On Monday, Kellom, a Democrat from Detroit, said Commissioner Rhonda Lange’s map was “discriminatory.” Lange disputed that assessment.

Later that day, Kellom said she felt commissioners were being dismissive of her suggestions. As she started to cry, Szetela told her to “just stop.”

The Detroit Caucus in the Michigan Legislature on Thursday called on Lange to apologize.

Both Kellom and Szetela issued a joint statement saying the panel continues to collaborate.

“Let’s not let a moment in time define the outcome of an ongoing process,” the statement said. “So instead, we’re focused on our mission to draw fair maps through public engagement in following the seven ranked redistricting criteria.”

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