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.