Flint, MI—About 30 Flint-area residents spoke to Michigan’s independent redistricting commission Tuesday, with one common theme emerging among their comments: residents want the commission to start from scratch when drawing new congressional and state legislative district boundaries.
“You must start the maps over from scratch,” said Michelle Gushen, a retired Flint Community Schools teacher. “We used to say ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,’ but in this case, toss those babies out. Our current maps are damaging, partisan, gerrymandering puzzles and are a direct assault on Michigan’s democratic process.”
At least five other speakers agreed with Gushen, noting that a big selling point for the ballot proposal creating the commission was that it would help end partisan gerrymandering in Michigan.
Devin Bathish, the executive director for the Arab American Heritage Council, was among those expressing a similar sentiment, arguing that the current system is flawed and should not be the basis for any future maps.
“One of the biggest things I want to just mention, and echo, is that we need to start over. We were not intended to be a part of this system when the system was created,” Bathish said. “We have to redraw these maps to ensure that everyone is accounted for, and to also ensure that those Arab Americans, and also all marginalized communities of color, are included in holistic districts. I do not want to see division within districts to basically pocket out specific districts so that our vote doesn’t mean anything.”
Bathish said special attention must be paid to the Arab American community, since they aren’t included as a category in census data.
“One of the things I want to uplift is that the Arab American community has been holistically lost in the process at a federal level for basically 70 years,” Bathish said. “Arab Americans, we actually cannot mark a box on the census. There is no federal government data that records us, and so it is very important that we actually listen to Arab Americans.”
Flint Rising Director Nayyirah Shariff pointed to Black residents, especially on the north side of Flint, as another group that should be treated as a community of interest.
“Right now we have the 34th House District, which encompasses the north side of Flint, which has the majority of Black people kind of concentrated in, and that has a Black representative,” Shariff said. “And whatever map, it needs to be Black, like, that’s all I’m going to say. It needs to be Black, because it’s one thing to live in an area and you have someone that doesn’t represent your interests, and it’s another thing that they don’t represent your interests and they don’t look like you, so they don’t really know or have any sort of similarities to how you are living your life.”
Vivian Kelley, First Vice President for the Flint NAACP, urged the commission to consider areas that have large prison populations that cannot vote to avoid artificially inflating minority voting strength.
“Such measures would account for the actual voting strength of these districts and areas, at least until measures are taken to permanently include these individuals and areas where they are likely to return after incarceration,” Kelley said.
Jerry Tkach, a former Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives, proposed a community of interest along the I-69 corridor from Flint to Port Huron.
“You shouldn’t just take into account where people live, you should also take into account where people work. People in Lapeer work in a GM plant in Flint or Pontiac,” Tkach said.
Tkach also urged the commission to include multiple types of regions in each district.
“In addition, it seems like people have been focusing on these urban islands in the middle of a rural sea. Instead, I wish that we could maybe link the two together and kind of have the representatives and legislators have their left foot in the city and their right foot in the country, that way they have to address both sides of the story instead of just one side,” Tkach said.
Flint NAACP President Frances Gilcreast said their primary focus is on educating members and the public on how to engage with the redistricting process and why redistricting is important.
“The ideology and the philosophical views of policymakers in these various legislative seats, and of the candidates who seek these seats, can influence the types of public policies promoted by legislative bodies,” Gilcreast said.
Written testimony and redistricting plans can be submitted on the commission’s website.
Hearings have previously been held in Jackson, Kalamazoo, Marquette, Gaylord, Midland and Lansing. A total of 16 hearings have been scheduled through July 1.
The commission is required to hold at least 10 hearings throughout the state to inform the public about the redistricting process and seek input on potential plans. They hope to collect 10,000 public comments by the end of the tour.
Once the commission has proposed redistricting plans, they must hold at least five more public hearings to solicit feedback on the proposals.
Dates for the second round of hearings have not yet been announced.
The commission has a deadline of Sept. 17 to present a public draft of the maps, with a final vote to adopt the districts happening by Nov. 1 before they take effect on Dec. 31.
But delays in census data mean specific information about which areas of the state grew or shrunk in population won’t be released until Sept. 30, about six months after the U.S. Census Bureau’s deadline of March 31 and two weeks after the commission is supposed to have drawn maps to propose.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and the commission have asked the Michigan Supreme Court for a three-month extension, which would allow them to propose the maps by Dec. 11 and adopt them by Jan. 25, 2022, following a 45-day public comment period.
That timeline would not change the filing deadline for candidates, who would still have to collect and submit nominating petitions for the new districts by April 19, 2022 in order to appear on the August 2022 primary ballot.
Further complicating matters for some candidates, Michigan will lose one seat in Congress during the redistricting process, as census data shows the state population growing at a rate slower than other states.
That seat is likely to come from the Detroit area, possibly leaving one of six Detroit-area Democrats’ districts merged with another member’s, according to Dave Wasserman, who covers the U.S. House for the Cook Political Report.
Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Brenda Lawrence have districts within the city of Detroit, while Reps. Andy Levin, Debbie Dingell, Elissa Slotkin, and Haley Stevens represent the suburbs.
The commission will likely try to preserve the two majority Black districts within the city, potentially leaving the four suburban Democratic members to play musical chairs with a reduced three districts.
“There may not be enough blue turf left to protect all four suburban Ds,” Wasserman said on Twitter.
Michigan’s 5th Congressional District, which includes Flint, will have to expand to include about 102,000 more residents.
That could pose an increased challenge for Rep. Dan Kildee, as the district, which voted for President Joe Biden by 4 percentage points in 2020, is surrounded on most sides by areas that heavily supported former President Donald Trump, Wasserman said.
Michigan’s current congressional delegation is split evenly, with seven Democrats and seven Republicans.
Republicans currently control both chambers of the Michigan Legislature, with a six-seat margin in the House and a four-seat margin in the Senate. Two Senate seats that had previously been held by Republicans are currently vacant.
Michigan’s top three executive branch officials – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, and Benson, all Democrats – will also be up for re-election next year.
Before the independent redistricting commission was approved in 2018, district maps had been drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2000 and 2010, and the Michigan Supreme Court in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990.
Under the U.S. and Michigan constitutions, the commission is required to have districts be geographically contiguous and reasonably compact, must consider communities of interest as well as city, county, and township boundaries, and must not give a disproportionate advantage to any political party or favor or disfavor any incumbent elected officials.