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Michigan's push to end gerrymandering offers 'hope' for divided nation, advocates say

If deeply partisan Michigan can redraw its political lines, there’s “hope for other places that also might seem hopeless," an expert said.
Illustration of three different Michigan redistricting maps. An ominous horizon is in the background.
Michigan has some of the most gerrymandered political boundaries in the nation. An independent commission is weighing how to create fairer districts. Kate Dehler / for NBC News

PORT HURON, Mich. — In a country where Democrats and Republicans have spent the past year battling over allegations of election fraud and attempts at voter suppression, the earnest scene playing out in a conference room here last week almost didn't make sense.

The stakes were high. A commission charged with redrawing Michigan's political boundaries was preparing to make crucial decisions that could affect the future of the state — and even the nation.

Yet there was no heckling, no chanting, no catcalls.

Instead, the roughly 70 people gathered in a brightly lit convention hall at the base of an international bridge that connects Michigan with Canada listened respectfully as one speaker after another offered ideas for how the state’s legislative and congressional districts should be drawn.

An environmental advocate asked for a district linking towns along the nearby St. Clair river so future representatives might prioritize its water quality.

A Methodist pastor requested a district that would consider the needs of religious voters, keeping churchgoers together.

A farmer and union leader asked for the rural and tourism communities in Michigan’s thumb region — named for its location in the mitten-shaped state — to be grouped together in a district separate from the industrial areas closer to Detroit. That way, he said, the thumb would have elected officials focused on agriculture rather than on industry.

"I don't think we get a fair shake up here," said the farmer, Dick Cummings, 78.

Image: Public hearing, Michigan
People attending a meeting of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission last week in Port Huron listened to speakers. Brian Wells / Times Herald via Imagn

This genteel display of civic discourse was part of a new nonpartisan effort by Michigan to redraw its political boundaries this year. The approach — handing redistricting power over to a 13-member independent citizens commission — is being watched by other states with interest, said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center For Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy organization at New York University Law School.

“I can’t overstate how many eyes are on Michigan right now,” Li said.

Michigan has some of the most gerrymandered political boundaries in the nation, Li said. The sprawling districts twist and turn to give electoral advantages to Republicans, who drew the lines a decade ago.

The state has also had some of the fiercest political fights of recent years. Protesters stormed the statehouse with assault weapons to protest Covid-19 restrictions last spring, and supporters of former President Donald Trump pounded on the windows of a Detroit convention center as election workers counted votes after the November election. Last fall, 13 men were charged with attempting to kidnap the state’s Democratic governor.

So if an independent commission can draw fair political districts here that meet legal requirements and that can survive an expected flood of court challenges, it could serve as a model for other states to follow, Li said. Eventually, that could lead to fairer elections across the country — and maybe even a less rancorous political dynamic.

“A lot of people are rooting for Michigan now because the state looked hopeless in a lot of ways,” Li said.

If Michigan can do it, he added, “there’s a lot of hope for other places that also might seem hopeless.”

‘Just trying to work together’

Most states are preparing to redraw legislative and congressional districts after the 2020 federal census in the same way they always have: People in power will work behind closed doors to create districts designed to give their party an electoral edge for the coming decade.

The traditional partisan method has led in the past to strangely shaped districts in some states that zigzag to ensure that as many districts as possible are “safe” for the party drawing them up. The opposing party either gets packed into single districts, or carved up so its political power is diluted.

Critics say the approach — called gerrymandering — is a major reason the nation’s politics have become so deeply partisan. Since candidates running in safe districts typically don’t need to worry about the general election, they’re more likely to cater to the hard-core party stalwarts who vote in low-turnout primaries by adopting more extreme views.

“Some of the divide we’re seeing right now is that legislatures know they don’t have to be 100 percent responsive,” said Hannah Wheelan, a senior analyst with the electoral innovation lab at Princeton University. “A lot of their districts are safe, and they’re going to be able to win them no matter what.”

Voters then don’t feel like their votes matter, she said, which drives down turnout and puts even more power into the hands of party bosses.

Gerrymandering in Michigan 10 years ago, after the last census, was so effective for the Republican Party that the GOP has maintained a majority in both legislative houses for the last decade, though Democrats have won a majority of votes in some elections, including 2018 when they swept four statewide offices and earned more votes in legislative races overall.

This time, however, the process will be different, thanks to a grassroots effort that began in 2016, when a Michigan woman lamented the effects of gerrymandering on Facebook.

Her post went viral, bringing out volunteers who gathered more than 400,000 signatures to put a proposed redistricting change on the state ballot. The measure overcame a host of legal challenges and, in 2018, won overwhelming support from voters who amended the state Constitution to create the independent commission.

The voters made Michigan one of four states, along with Arizona, California and Colorado, that have removed elected officials and political parties from the process of redrawing political lines.

Michigan’s new process doesn’t even use elected officials to choose the members of the commission.

The 13 commissioners — four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents — were chosen by lottery from among 9,000 applicants. The secretary of state last summer randomly selected 200 semifinalists using a statistical weighting process to ensure diversity and statewide representation. Political parties only had the power to remove a limited number of candidates who they thought would be particularly partisan before the 13 commissioners were randomly chosen.

The commissioners, including lawyers, a retired banker, a medical student and a trauma practitioner who works with survivors of violent crimes, will start drawing political lines this summer or fall once final census numbers are available. The maps will apply to Congressional and legislative races next year.

Image: Public hearing, Michigan
Ryan Johnson, of the St. Clair County and 10th Congressional District Democrats, addressed the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission during a public hearing in Port Huron last week.Brian Wells / Times Herald via Imagn

Districts must comply with state and federal laws and be similarly sized with reasonable, not zigzagging shapes. The commission, which does its work in public meetings, must also consider “communities of interest,” which could be anything — a religious group, a group of people who work in the same industry or people who send their children to a particular school. The goal is to keep voters in those communities together in a district, so that they can more powerfully lobby for their views.

Learning about these communities was one the goals of the 16 public meetings the commission held in May and June, including the one last week in Port Huron.

More than a thousand people have addressed the commission. Hundreds more have submitted comments and proposed maps online.

All of the public meetings have been as peaceful and civil as the one in Port Huron, said Douglas J. Clark Jr., 74, a Republican commissioner from the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills. At some meetings, he said, people have applauded every speaker.

Not everyone will be happy with the new districts, said Clark, a retired operations and development manager. That’s not possible given the broad range of opinions people have expressed. But he believes the lines drawn through this process will be better than the ones drawn by political parties.

“We’re going to represent the public a lot better than they did,” Clark said. “The Republicans aren’t forcing anything Republican. The Democrats aren’t forcing anything Democrat. We're all just trying to work together to get these maps drawn in a nonpartisan way.”

‘David overcoming Goliath’

The commissioners’ goals are lofty, but the process could be messy. A couple of lawsuits have already tried to stop the commission’s work — unsuccessfully, so far — and more are likely once maps are drawn, said Nancy Wang, the president of Voters Not Politicians, the nonpartisan advocacy organization that wrote the constitutional amendment and led the campaign to pass it.

Many in Michigan oppose the process, particularly Republicans who would have had the power to draw districts again this year.

Tori Sachs, the executive director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, whose former director filed a lawsuit last year to stop the commission, said in a statement that the focus on communities of interest seems like just another form of gerrymandering.

“Activists are asking the Commission to gerrymander maps that divide communities based on partisan political issues,” she said in the statement, citing reports that describe potential communities of interest formed around political issues like the environment or immigration.

“That’s a mistake,” Sachs said. “Voters established a nonpartisan commission to draw fair maps and avoid gerrymandering. They deserve a commission that does what it promised.”

Advocates for overhauling redistricting across the country worry that a botched process in Michigan, whether that’s maps thrown out in court, a chaotic rollout or unfair lines that everyone hates, could harm the national movement. But, as Wang sees it, the fact that the process is happening here at all is a sign of progress.

“This really was David overcoming Goliath,” she said. “People in power are doing everything they can to fight this, but this is what the people want.”

When Arizona became the first state to use an independent redistricting commission after the 2000 census, it was something of a curiosity, Wang said.

When California followed suit in 2010, the effort won attention and applause. But Colorado and Michigan adopting the approach this year has the potential to show that the idea can work more broadly, Wang said.

“If you add Michigan to the mix, it just builds a case that you can’t really refute.”