The Ford School of Public Policy hosted a panel discussion Wednesday night on the role of “communities of interest” — or people with a shared set of concerns related to legislation or governance — in the new redistricting process. In 2018, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment to change the redistricting process, or the ways in which congressional and state legislative districts are drawn.
The event began with Public Policy senior Molly Kalb and Rackham student Mariam Sayeed introducing the 2018 Michigan state constitutional amendment to place redistricting power in the hands of a nonpartisan citizen’s commission known as the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.
Sayeed said she was excited to be at the event after collaborating with the organization Voters Not Politicians to encourage Michigan residents to become involved in the redistricting process.
“I am very excited to be here and honored to have been able to partner with VNP to create a video highlighting the importance of COIs during Michigan’s redistricting process,” Sayeed said.
John Chamberlin, professor emeritus of political science and public policy, moderated the event and said the new redistricting process is more transparent because it values the needs of citizens rather than political parties and legislators.
Nancy Wang, a founding member and executive director of VNP, presented at the event and described her organization as a grassroots, nonpartisan group that formed in 2016 to reform partisan gerrymandering in Michigan. The goal of VNP, according to Wang, is to give citizens the power to choose how they are represented without giving unfair advantages to certain politicians.
“Their job is to carry out the requirements that we put in the Michigan Constitution and that really is to draw maps around public input,” Wang said. “They need to act in a way that reinforces the public trust, so there’s no backroom deals, there’s no decision-making where they can be taking political parties or candidates and trying to give them an unfair advantage.”
Sandy Sorini-Elser, a volunteer at VNP, explained the seven criteria that the commission must follow in order to draw voting district lines. Some of these criteria include following federal laws like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making sure all districts touch each other and prohibiting giving certain parties an advantage over others. Sorini-Elser said COIs play an important role in the redistricting process.
“Communities of interest may include but are not limited to populations that share cultural or historical characteristics or economic interests,” Sorini-Elser said. “(COIs are) really just your community, it’s my community, it’s our neighbor’s community.”
The last presenter, Connie Cook, a volunteer at VNP who leads the community mapping program –– or identifying assets in the community–– discussed the ways in which COIs can participate in the redistricting process. She said because the commission is on a strict timeline, with public hearings most likely beginning in May, COIs should begin this work soon.
“Communities just have to draw themselves, decide where their boundaries are and draw themselves giving their shared concerns, their shared interests, to justify why they constitute (as) a community and want to be kept together,” Cook said. “The (COI) can suggest to the commission other cities … (and) other groups that have shared interests … They can ask for landmarks … or they can say ‘we don’t want to be with this other community that has very different interests than ours.’”
Cook said it is important for people to become involved in the redistricting process as soon as possible in order for them to have their voices heard.
“We are hoping that redistricting will make things work better for you, that it will give you better representation, that it will give you better elected officials, people who care about you will meet with you (and) understand your concerns, and that the result will be better government programs and services,” Cook said. “We expect that the redistricting process is going to give the people of Michigan the political power that they need and deserve.”
Daily Staff Reporter Brooke Halak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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