Michigan civil rights department sounds alarm on redistricting commission's maps

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With just over a week left until Michigan's redistricting commission votes to adopt new voting districts for the next decade, the state’s civil rights department says the commission's maps violate federal voting rights requirements.

"The current proposed maps would strip the ability of minority voters to have any meaningful chance of having candidates who represent their interests," Jerome Reide, legislative liaison for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, told the Free Press. "When we see discrimination, we have to point it out. In our view, this is discrimination."

An analysis by the department argues the commission's proposed congressional maps don't comply with the Voting Rights Act — the federal law that prohibits voting districts that deny minority voters an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates — because they eliminate majority-minority districts, where nonwhite voters make up more than 50% of the district.

It found that the commission must draw majority-minority districts in Detroit, Flint, Hamtramck, Inkster, Pontiac, Redford, Saginaw, Southfield and Taylor.

Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a Harvard Law School professor who specializes in election law, called the department's work "laughably bad analysis," in an email to the Free Press.

The Voting Rights Act doesn't require majority-minority districts, Stephanopoulos said. "Rather, it sometimes requires minority opportunity districts to be drawn — that is, districts where minority voters are able to elect their candidates of choice. In a state like Michigan, with a reasonable volume of white Democrats willing to support minority-preferred candidates, the threshold for an opportunity district is certainly below 50%."

Consultants for Michigan's redistricting commission reached the same conclusion.

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An analysis of racial voting patterns over the past decade by Lisa Handley, a political scientist hired by the commission, found that districts where the Black voting age population is at least 35% in Genesee and Wayne counties and at least 40% in Oakland and Saginaw counties would elect minority-preferred candidates based on previous election results.

She told the commission that the districts it draws "do not have to be majority-minority in composition."

Reide countered that the commission's decision to eliminate majority-Black districts in its congressional and state Senate maps and reduce the number of such districts in the state House dilutes the voting strength of minority voters.

Leah Aden, deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., told the Free Press earlier that the commission can eliminate majority-minority districts if Black voters would still be able to elect their preferred candidates.

"They can take away the district if they can show that Black voters are getting sufficient support from the white community regularly to allow them to continue to elect their candidates of choice," she said.

Based on Handley's analysis, the commission’s voting rights attorney, Bruce Adelson, advised the group of novice mappers that drawing majority-minority districts could prompt legal challenges.

"Remember that if a district can be established through analysis to be able to elect candidates of choice for the minority community at let’s say 40%, if you add population on to that, the courts constitute that as packing," he said, referring to districts in which minority voters account for the overwhelming majority.

While packed districts all but guarantee that minority-preferred candidates will win, they remove minority voters from surrounding districts where they could influence elections.

"We trust the counsel received from our voting rights attorney," Edward Woods III, the commission’s communications and outreach director, said in an email to the Free Press.

The commission's congressional and state Senate maps would eliminate majority-Black districts currently in place while preserving the number of districts home to a Black voting age population that is at least 35%, according to a report from Michigan State University's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.

Meanwhile, the proposed state House maps would reduce the number of majority-Black districts while increasing the number of districts with a Black voting age population that is at least 35% from 12 in the current map to 17 or 19 in the proposed maps, according to the report.

Rebecca Szetela, the independent chair of the commission, has argued that the maps may improve Black voters' representation since many of the current state House districts are home to a Black voting age population well above 50%, including three above 90%.

"What we have done is taken those areas and divided them into multiple districts so that there's actually more districts where minority voters will be able to elect their candidates of choice, which should actually have the effect of increasing the representation among the African American community," she said during a press conference in October.

John Johnson, Jr. the executive director for the state's civil rights department disagrees. In a Wednesday statement, he called the commission's maps "flawed," arguing that they "erode the ability of minority voters to elect candidates who both look like them and reflect their policy preferences regarding the needs of their communities."

The commission plans to adopt final congressional and legislative maps the last week in December.

Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Contact her at chendrickson@freepress.com or 313-296-5743. Follow her on Twitter @clarajanehen.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan civil rights department: Redistricting maps violate law

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