In November 2018, Michigan voters amended the Michigan Constitution by passing Proposal 2, which places legislative and congressional redistricting in the hands of a 13 member Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. Monday night, the Ford School of Public Policy hosted a panel discussion with Jocelyn Benson, Michigan Secretary of State, and other experts to discuss this new approach to redistricting and particularly focused on the role of “Communities of Interest” within this framework. 

COIs are a new concept for Michigan redistricting and are described in Proposal 2 as communities that “share cultural or historical characteristics or economic interests, and do not include relationships with political parties, incumbents, or political candidates.” They are high on the list of priorities in drawing new districts, after equal population, compliance with the Voting Rights Act and contiguity. 

The panel was moderated by Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, a ballot initiative to end gerrymandering in Michigan. She began by touching on the motivations of Constitutional Amendment Proposal 2. 

“2018 was a historic election for lots of reasons,” Wang said. “One big one was two and a half million citizens across the state of Michigan from all political parties, all across the state, voted in favor of Proposal 2, to take politicians out of our redistricting process. To make Michigan’s days as one of the most gerrymandered in the entire country, no more. And to put in its place a new, citizen-led process.”

Benson then delivered her opening remarks. She thanked the other panelists for their expertise and emphasized that she viewed her office from the point of view of an academic rather than a politician.

“I know as an academic the best way to approach something is to collect data and make informed decisions based on that,” Benson said. 

Benson further explained how important it is that the commission be independent, citizen-led and non-partisan in actuality.

“This is not the time to take a victory lap,” Benson said. “This is the time to dig in and continue and really get to work in ensuring that this commission, that millions of citizens envisioned and made a reality, is a success. And we define success in our office as ensuring the process itself is truly citizen-led, is truly independent and non-partisan and is transparent every step of the way.”

She said they plan on implementing the application process in several phases. The first phase, which they are currently in, is inviting Michigan residents to randomly serve on the 13 member commission. The second phase begins in June, when applications close. 200 semi-finalists will be randomly selected using geographic and demographic data, ensuring four Republicans, four Democrats and five unaffiliated voters are selected. Phase three will begin in fall 2020 when the committee is seated and will end in the fall of 2021 when the redistricting is complete. 

“The commission, once seated, will have one year from next fall to draw the maps that will be the next congressional, state legislative and state senate districts for the entire state,” Benson said.

Wang then began the panel discussion with a question for panelist Chris Lamar, the legal counsel for redistricting with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.. Lamar mentioned the relative commonality of the COI and the importance of its use in this context. 

“The idea of COIs, while it sounds nebulous, is actually not a rare thing,” Lamar said. “Twenty four states consider COIs in various aspects. COIs generally include racial, social, economic considerations… COIs do not include relationships to political parties or to incumbents. And that’s very important to me.”

Wang’s next question was for panelist Connie Malloy, chair of the 2010 California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Wang asked Malloy about her experience as a part of California’s commission. Malloy emphasized the crucial role commission members play in offering more humanized information about a community. 

“There’s so much the census does not tell you about a community,” Malloy said. “It doesn’t give you any information about the economy, the geography, or the history of a place. And that is something where the testimony from the public and your lived experience is really critical to be able to inform how the commission takes these dry numbers and statistics from the census and makes it come alive into a set of fair maps that make sense for the community.”

Panelist Christopher Thomas, former director of elections for the State of Michigan, then weighed in by comparing the old Apol Standards of redistricting to the new standards set in 2018. 

“So (the Apol standards) looked at jurisdictional lines,” Thomas said. “So after you did the federal population and Voting Rights Act, and contiguity, you then drew a plan that split the fewest number of county lines, and that within those counties, split the fewest number of city and township lines. It sounded really neutral. There’s some consideration that it really didn’t turn out that neutral.”

Wang then asked Malloy to explain in more detail the concept of drawing boundaries that align with community lines. Malloy explained that the California Citizens Redistricting Commission gave equal priority to city, county and COI lines, but that this often came with trade-offs between them. 

“Given how rarely jurisdictional boundaries change,” Malloy said. “There’s times where they don’t actually reflect the fabric of the community that has grown out organically around them.”

Malloy further explained the process through which the California Commission took public opinion into account.  

“We had a set of (public) hearings,” she said. “(And we had) live visualizations that were always live-streamed or people could weigh in as we were actually in the map-making process.”

Wang asked Benson to elaborate on the Michigan Commission’s actual process of redistricting. She emphasized the autonomy of the commission within Constitutional bounds and the importance of citizen participation. 

“The commission will be autonomous. Our office will be focused on the citizen engagement component of this effort,” Benson said. “I think, at every point, it will be the voices of citizens who lead the way.”

Information graduate student Bonnie White believes this is a positive initiative. 

“Prior to being a student I wasn’t aware (of) the extent that Michigan was gerrymandered,” White said. “I think it’s a testament to the citizens of Michigan, that it’s voters and politicians, that the program has been so well-received, and implemented. It’s just really impressive. The impact that they’ve had state-wide. And I think it’s wonderful that citizens are being able to participate in democracy in this way.”

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