On Nov. 30th, the Ford School of Public Policy held an event to discuss Michigan’s new citizen-led redistricting process and its impacts on the midterm election, the first election since new lines were drawn in December 2021. The meeting was moderated by Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy at Michigan State University, and hosted three panelists: Nancy Wang, an executive and founder of the Voters Not Politicians group (VNP), Zack Gorchow, executive editor and publisher of Gongwer, and Moon Duchin, a mathematician at Tufts University who runs the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group (MGGG) Redistricting Lab.  

Grossmann started the meeting by expressing gratitude for the partnership between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan in creating the new redistricting process as an effort to form more representative districts for Michigan’s legislative races.

“This first-time process has been an opportunity to try out a new approach, to redistricting and drawing fairer maps,” Grossmann said. “And tonight we review how Michigan did.” 

To open up the conversation, Grossmann used various graphs of data from the recent election to show the successes of the new Michigan maps. The new Michigan electoral maps offer more bipartisan representation in the House and Senate, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Grossmann went on to say that Michigan’s experience with this redistricting process is now seen as a national model, and explained that the new maps can now fairly represent voters in the state after replacing old maps that benefited the party that drew them.

The VNP is a non-partisan organization with the goal to counteract gerrymandering by proposing to redraw district lines to place voting power and representation back into the people of Michigan rather than politicians. The proposal passed in 2018 and allocated redistricting processes to the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which consists of 13 registered voters: 4 being Democrat, 4 being Republican, and 5 being unaffiliated with any major political party.   

Moon Duchin said voting between Democrats and Republicans was very tight during the 2022 midterms. When comparing this with other elections, like the 2020 presidential elections, Duchin said it signifies partisan fairness in the maps.

“When you have past elections, that’s what you’re using to try to gauge how a map is going to perform in a partisan way … ,” Duchin said. “If your new voting pattern looks a lot like some of the ones you’re using to benchmark, you look great. … You’ve calibrated successfully,”.

Grossmann and Duchin aren’t the only ones who view the process in this way. Public Policy graduate student Ryan Swick said this redistricting process is solving a representation problem in the state and federal legislatures and providing a framework for other states to use.

“The process itself was addressing an issue that Michigan was having,” Swick said. “The representation throughout the state was not being representative in the hall of the legislature. I think it’s a positive outcome and a model for other states to use.”

In the end, Wang’s efforts earned VNP’s proposal 1.2 million voters, of which 61% were Democratic. 

Grossmann added that the overall number of Black representatives decreased in the Michigan Senate under the new districting map— but not in the Michigan House or U.S Congress. In particular, Black representation would suffer under the new district map in Detroit because the commission spread African American voters into 40 to 45% black population districts rather than smaller districts with majority Black population. Grossman said the committee’s goal was to take input from voters regardless of race.

“(The commission was) trying to gauge the preferences of voters’ candidates regardless of the candidate’s race, so there may be districts where Black-preferred yet non-Black candidates won,” Grossman said. “And things may change over the next few election cycles.” 

The issue of representation or racial fairness is something that Moon Duchin also brought up when she came on the stream to talk. 

She discussed racial fairness and how criticism of the commission in the early drafts focused on the lower percentage of Black voting-age population (BVAP) in districts. This meant few districts had high enough numbers of possibly eligible Black voters to influence the outcome of the elections. Another criticism of the commission is that they optimize districts to a 40-50% BVAP, instead of 50%, which would signify absolute majority for Black voters. But Duchin defended the 40-50% standard. 

“Not much primary data was available to the commission,” Duchin said. “There were very few contested primaries in Michigan in the last 10 years. … Without primary data, it’s very hard to know whether preferred candidates of Black voters or any other group will be able to get through to general elections. … If you don’t know who’s going to run, you’re flying blind.”

Duchin shared more about the process of gathering information from communities of interest around the state. While the commission gathered thousands of responses and used them to draw the districts, she said it was difficult to process all of the responses.

“(Analysis of this information) was slow and challenging. … It’s of course difficult to track exactly how to take just that much testimony into account,” Duchin said.

Wang also acknowledged some challenges with the new process. 

Since the commission in this redistricting cycle was the first citizen-led body in state history charged with redrawing the maps, Wang said educating people on how the process works is important. 

“We still … have to educate voters about the process, … (and) how to deliver testimonies that can be used by the commission,” Wang said. 

Like Duchin, Wang mentioned the massive quantities of input concerning the redistricting process from voters throughout the state.

 “It’s really hard to figure out how to organize it all, when you have 9000 pieces of maps and testimonies, which ones are more important than others?” Wang said.

Wang hopes to continue to improve upon democracy in Michigan before the next election cycle to ensure that elections reflect what the people want.

“Politicians really have no shame in trying to grab as much power as they can. … We had election after election where the outcomes had nothing to do with how the voters were voting,” Wang said. “I’d love to see us continue to grow our volunteer base and continue to fight for big structural reforms that will transform our democracy in Michigan for the better, for voters.”   

Wang said she believes there is a lot of good movement going on in Michigan to fight for democracy, and that this is an exciting time for students at the University of Michigan.

“I’m hoping that the students will take up the mantle and feel empowered to do something,” Wang said. “Increase participation, engage, knowing that you have the power to change and make it work better for voters.”

Daily News Contributor Aditya Kannan can be reached at kannana@umich.edu