As Michigan’s redistricting commission promises to redraw the map of the state’s election districts by Nov. 1, a report from Hillsdale College urges its members to focus on traditional geographic boundaries rather than demographics.
Stephen Markman, professor of constitutional law at Hillsdale and retired Michigan Supreme Court justice, wrote Hillsdale’s report at the request of College President Larry Arnn. It responds to a report commissioned by the University of Michigan, which urges the redistricting commission to redefine electoral districts based on race, ethnicity, religion, and other features.
“Hillsdale College is pretty much posed against the University of Michigan; it’s an interesting tension we have there,” Markman said. “Both reports are trying to give some meaning to the term ‘community of interest’ which is the critical term within the new constitutional provision the people approved in 2018.”
Michigan voters approved the “Voters Not Politicians” proposal in 2018, a constitutional amendment to “establish a commission of citizens with exclusive authority to adopt district boundaries for the Michigan Senate, Michigan House of Representatives and U.S. Congress, every 10 years.”
According to Markman, the main goals of the new amendment were to limit gerrymandering and partisan districts, as well as to prevent legislators from drawing districts and engaging in self-dealing, by replacing them with a citizen-led commission.
The commission is made up of 13 registered voters selected by the Michigan secretary of state and has the authority to draw legislative and congressional district lines for the 2022 election and future elections. The amendment states the new redistricting criteria are established to reflect “Michigan’s diverse population and communities of interest.”
The definition of “communities of interest” is the central debate between the University of Michigan and Hillsdale reports, according to Markman.
“Every electoral district in the state is dependent on how we define a ‘community of interest,’” Markman said. “Hillsdale is arguing that the Michigan Supreme Court on a number of occasions has defined that term on the basis of geographical boundaries, city, county, township boundaries and so forth. This is the way that our districts in Michigan and most states in the country have been defined from time immemorial.”
The University of Michigan report defines a community of interest as “ a group of individuals who share common bonds (economic, ethnic, cultural, etc.).” The report lists other examples of communities of interest as transportation districts, special assessment tax districts, communities concerned about environmental hazards, or groups with a shared vision of the future of a community.
Markman said he feared the University of Michigan proposal would hide the problems of gerrymandering and partisan interests “under a more camouflaged name.”
“There’s no standard for determining which of 100 special interest groups or 100 racial, ethnic, or religious groups are going to get the benefit of community of interest status,” Markman said.
“The great virtue of continuing to define a community of interest on the basis of geographical boundaries is that every Michigander is a member of some community of interest.”
We all belong to a community, it’s our home, we live in these communities, we’re concerned about them and have an interest in these communities.”
Markman urged the commission to take Hillsdale’s report into consideration, as it is the principal response to the University of Michigan.
“We’ve been trying for months to get some opportunity to speak before the commission and share our perspectives about the University of Michigan report, and thus far we haven’t had any opportunity to do that,” Markman said. “Obviously the University of Michigan is a bigger institution than Hillsdale,” Markman said. “But I think Hillsdale’s put together a report that deserves consideration by the commission and by the people of Michigan, who approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 that never contemplated the so-called ‘new theory of representation’ that the University of Michigan is urging upon the commission.”
Thomas Ivanco, executive director of University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, which commissioned their report, said their report only focuses on communities of interest.
“Our report on Communities of Interest did not address gerrymandering,” he said in an email, “but rather only addressed issues related to COIs.”.
Ivanco declined to comment on the Hillsdale report.