Michi­gan’s Capitol Building | Pixabay

When 61% of Michi­ganders voted in 2018 to form the Michigan Inde­pendent Cit­izens Redis­tricting Com­mission, they expected an end to ger­ry­man­dered maps con­trolling who rep­re­sented them in Lansing and Wash­ington, D.C. After all, the commission’s mission is to ensure “dis­trict lines are drawn fairly in a citizen-led, trans­parent process, meeting Con­sti­tu­tional mandates.” 

Yet the com­mission now threatens to do some­thing much more ambi­tious — and dan­gerous. By changing the tra­di­tional def­i­n­ition of “com­munity of interest” away from geog­raphy and replacing it with a new vision that involves race, eth­nicity, income, and other factors, it’s on the verge of cre­ating a map that robs Michi­ganders of fairly drawn dis­tricts that ensure genuine, local representation.

In Sep­tember, the com­mission released its first pro­posed map for the Michigan state senate’s 38 dis­tricts. It diverges from the 2010 map drawn by the Michigan leg­is­lature because it ignores the bound­aries that mark counties, town­ships, and other juris­dic­tions. The Michigan Infor­mation and Research Service has pro­jected that Repub­licans would maintain their majority in the senate, which cur­rently stands at 22 – 16. So does Dave’s Redis­tricting, a software program that ana­lyzes dis­trict bound­aries. It pre­dicts that after the 2022 elec­tions, Repub­licans will hold a 20 – 18 majority. Democrats, however, have an edge in flipping seats and securing their first state senate majority in decades since more Repub­licans occupy swing dis­tricts than Democrats, according to Bridge Michigan.

The com­mission seems obsessed with cre­ating dis­tricts that will have close elec­tions rather than rep­re­sen­tation based on genuine com­mu­nities. The new map, for example, increases the number of swing dis­tricts, where Democrats and Repub­licans are elected within eight points of each other, from six to eight. Two addi­tional swing dis­tricts in the state senate is a modest change. The way the com­mission achieves com­pet­itive dis­tricts, however, is alarming because they cost Michi­ganders genuine local rep­re­sen­tation. To accom­plish this feat, the com­mission used 30 dis­tricts to split counties, versus just six previously.

Hillsdale County pro­vides an excellent example. Hillsdale’s current dis­trict includes the entire county, as well as neigh­boring Branch and Jackson counties. Under the new map, however, Hillsdale is split in two. Most of the county is in a dis­trict that extends west 108 miles to the shore of Lake Michigan. How can res­i­dents of Hillsdale expect genuine local rep­re­sen­tation when their dis­trict spans nearly the width of Indiana? 

Three town­ships in the northern part of the county would join a swing dis­trict that stretches to Ann Arbor. Hillsdale pro­fessors living in Moscow, Scipio, or Som­erset Center would share a state senator with pro­fessors from the Uni­versity of Michigan living just outside of Ann Arbor. Is that a com­munity of interest?

The new­fangled map presents addi­tional problems in other parts of the state. Kent and Oakland counties, two of the most pop­u­lated counties in Michigan, would see a big increase in their number of senate dis­tricts in each county, with Kent County growing from three to five dis­tricts and Oakland County jumping from five to nine. One of these dis­tricts in Kent County jams the northern half of liberal Grand Rapids together with con­ser­v­ative Ottawa County farmland. This is a demo­c­ratic chimera — a monster that guar­antees fiery political cam­paigns but also lousy rep­re­sen­tation, as the area’s elected offi­cials tend to one part of their con­stituency and ignore the rest.

Michi­ganders who voted for the redis­tricting com­mission sought better local rep­re­sen­tation. What they may be getting, however, is a con­fusing map that’s worse than the par­tisan ger­ry­man­dering they thought they were rejecting.