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How Michigan Republicans are trying to sway state's independent redistricting process

When these commissions solicit public input, both parties, as well as special interest groups, look for additional opportunities to have a say.
Illustration of a map of Michigan state with overlapping red and blue shapes with a crosshatch.
In 2018, 61 percent of Michigan voters supported an amendment to the state’s Constitution known as Proposal 2 that created the independent citizens redistricting commission. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Michigan Republicans, blocked by voters from being directly involved in redrawing the state’s voting maps, launched a coordinated effort to influence the independent commission tasked with the job, an action documented in a series of recordings obtained by NBC News.

Senior state party officials hosted training sessions, conducting at least two last month, and distributed talking points coaching Republican supporters on how to argue on behalf of map changes that experts say would favor GOP candidates. Those same talking points were later repeated in testimony taken by the commission as part of the redistricting process in the critical battleground state.

Video recordings of two Zoom training sessions conducted on Oct. 18 and 19 were shared with NBC News by a source critical of the effort. Those sessions were conducted by Republican operatives, including Michigan Republican Party Political Director Andrea Pollock and Senior Director Sarah Anderson, as well as members of FAIR Maps Michigan, a conservative redistricting group that has criticized the independent commission.

“By law, we cannot engage with those commission members directly. We have not and we will not, which is where all of you come in. You get to go talk to them in public hearings and leave messages on the portal,” Anderson told attendees of the Oct. 19 training.

National redistricting experts said that the influence effort, which appears to have been timed to a series of public hearings on draft maps released in October, underscores the difficulty independent redistricting commissions in other states have faced in attempting to divorce politicians from the process of drawing new congressional and state legislative district boundaries.

When these commissions solicit public input, both parties, as well as special interest groups, look for additional opportunities to have a say. Still, the GOP training sessions viewed by NBC News offer a detailed look at an organized effort to maintain the party’s advantage even in supposedly independent new maps.

Doug Spencer, a redistricting expert and a law professor at the University of Colorado, said that “it undermines that idea, that what you’re hearing is actually curated comments from political parties or advocacy organizations, but that’s the reality of American politics.”

He continued, “While the commission can be independent, the process will always be political.”

Pollock and Anderson, in an interview with NBC News, said that the party is seeking fair maps that give the GOP a chance to compete, and argued that they believe Democrats and even some nonpartisan groups are attempting to skew the system against them.

“The party’s interest in this is a fair map. We are not asking for the commission to gerrymander in our favor. We're asking that they don't gerrymander for Democrats,” Anderson said.

State and county-level Democrats said they’ve encouraged and helped voters to engage in the redistricting process, going as far as to workshop talking points with them. But Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said that unlike the Republicans, her party is not holding training sessions.

After this article was published, Anderson shared an email that appeared to dispute multiple Michigan Democrats’ claims, including Barnes’, that the party had not conducted formal trainings. The email, sent Oct. 15 by Emily Boyer, senior political adviser on redistricting, invites Democrats in the Kalamazoo area to attend a Zoom training on advocating for fair maps.

A spokesman for the party, when asked about the email Thursday night, acknowledged the event. He said that four people participated and that it was primarily focused on explaining the redistricting process and the logistics of offering public comment. In the end, the spokesman said, none wanted to testify in person. The spokesman also said there was a similar event in Kent County, hosted by the county party over Zoom.

Asked about her earlier remarks, Barnes said in a statement Thursday night that “by no means have we had trainings that actively seek to undermine the commissioners working to prevent partisan gerrymandering.”

“Typical, right? Democrats are never as organized,” said Mark Brewer, former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, who noted that interest groups including environmental groups and the Bangladeshi community in Hamtramck, a city at the edge of Detroit, had organized in the state to influence the commission, too. “The fact that Republicans are doing that is not bad, per se. It’s what you’re teaching people to say and why.”

The independent commission

For decades, Michigan’s redistricting process was conducted by Republican lawmakers who controlled the state Legislature. Redistricting experts have frequently held up the state’s maps over the last decade as extreme partisan gerrymanders that boosted GOP candidates.

In 2019, a panel of three federal judges declared the maps to be an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander and ordered the Legislature to come up with a new plan for nine congressional and 25 state legislative districts — but the Supreme Court later overturned that ruling, declaring that such challenges involve an issue that is essentially political, beyond the authority of federal courts to resolve on legal grounds. Republicans remain in control of the state Legislature, but they aren’t drawing the new maps this year.

In 2018, 61 percent of Michigan voters supported an amendment to the state’s Constitution known as Proposal 2 that pulled the power to draw maps from the politicians in charge.

The amendment created an independent citizens redistricting commission made up of four members from each of the two major parties and five members without party affiliation who are chosen at random from a pool of vetted applicants. The Constitution charges the commission with drawing districts based on a series of considerations ranked by order of importance.

The top priorities are districts that are of equal size and geographic contiguity, followed by protecting “communities of interest,” which the Constitution defines as including groups with “cultural or historical characteristics or economic interests,” while noting this doesn’t include shared political interests.

After those top three, the priorities are partisan fairness; not favoring incumbents or candidates; existing county, city and town boundaries; and the compactness of districts.

Michigan Republicans publicly fought Proposal 2, unsuccessfully sued to block its implementation and have been openly critical of the commission during the more than 100 public meetings it has held since September 2020.

The training sessions

In the two Zoom training sessions viewed by NBC News, operatives repeatedly described existing county and city boundaries as “communities of interest,” in an apparent effort to help supporters appeal to the commission’s priorities, and suggested Democrats were trying to rig the process.

Spencer said that maintaining county and city boundaries in political districts often appears “neutral” but in practice it “hugely favors Republicans” in redistricting. In Michigan, strategists and experts say, Democrats tend to live close together and using those boundaries as guides will in effect pack Democrats into favorable, but fewer, districts.

The operatives also explained the importance of lobbying the commission for specific requests.

“If they keep Kent County whole in the congressional map, if they keep Grand Rapids whole as much as possible — like wholly enclosed in the state Senate district and limited to two breaks in the House, there’s very little they can do to the rest of the map across the state that does not — it would be a domino effect, right?” Anderson said in an Oct. 19 training session. “If they keep those things whole, there’s not much they can do to screw around with the rest of the state.”

Kent County, the state’s fourth-most populous, and its urban seat of Grand Rapids voted for President Joe Biden in 2020, in part thanks to a growing demographic shift that has politically altered an area that was once a Republican stronghold. Keeping it whole ensures the district’s liberal voters are packed together.

Jeff Timmer, former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, said the talking points mirror the strategy he employed in 2010 as a Republican official drawing maps he now acknowledges baked in a strong partisan advantage.

Broadly, keeping counties and cities intact will keep Democrats packed into urban districts due to the natural geographic segregation of voters, he said, adding that it appeared Republicans are now using the phrase “communities of interest” as a “kind of code word for the geographic segregation that already exists.”

“When somebody says 'communities of interest' in metro Detroit — you know, respect city boundaries in communities of interest,” Timmer said. “That's a code word for Blacks in Detroit.”

Timmer is now a member of the Lincoln Project, a political action committee formed by current and former Republicans who oppose former President Donald Trump, and said he regrets the gerrymander he helped create because he said it has empowered political extremes. Under gerrymandered maps, elections are frequently decided in primaries, which often favor more extreme candidates instead of a candidate likely to win in a competitive general seat. One reason the U.S. House of Representatives is so polarized right now is because both parties have done their best to pack their voters into safe districts.

During the Oct. 18 training session, Meghan Reckling, who was identified at the session as a part of Fair Maps Michigan and whose Twitter account identifies her as chair of the Livingston County Republican Party, zeroed in on Macomb County, a predominantly white district to the north of Detroit, a city that is nearly 80 percent Black, according to 2019 Census estimates.

“If you’re from the Macomb area, you could talk about keeping Macomb as whole as possible or the fact that you have nothing in common with Detroit,” she said.

Anderson said Reckling declined to speak with NBC News, but said Reckling had pointed to a recent tweet arguing lots of people want their communities kept whole.

‘We beg of you, listen to us’

At times, nearly verbatim messaging from party officials made its way to commission hearings via the training sessions.

“The most important thing for this Grand Rapids meeting is highlighting the fact that there is not a single commissioner from the west side of the state. They do not understand your communities, so please we beg of you, listen to us,” Anderson said in the Oct. 19 training.

Three days later, a woman who identified herself as Connie Eardley in both a training session and at the public hearing made extremely similar remarks to the commission.

“There is no representation of west Michigan on the board and I don’t expect you to be experts on our communities. That is why I am asking you to, please, listen to us, we the people, who are the experts in our communities,” she said. “Communities of interest are a higher Constitutional priority than partisan fairness. Geography does not care about partisanship.”

Eardley urged the commission to keep Ottawa County together. She did not respond to a message sent to her on Facebook.

Voters Not Politicians, the group that led the campaign to create the independent redistricting commission, said it has put out materials on how to engage with the commission to groups on both sides of the political aisle, and that volunteers have run training sessions.

“The difference between public input and these secret meetings is intent and transparency — whether the intent is to inform the commission or to manipulate the process to inject partisan bias into our maps,” the group’s executive director, Nancy Wang, said in a text message when asked about the Republican Party’s efforts.

Douglas Clark, a Republican serving on the commission, said sometimes people testifying would recite a similar script, making it clear they are working together — but that the commission was interested in hearing citizen input, regardless of party.

Brittni Kellom, a Democrat on the commission, stressed that attempts to emphasize one particular redistricting criteria over another — such as communities of interest or partisan fairness — was unlikely to influence the panel’s work.

“The emphasis by the public on certain criteria doesn’t impress upon us to take it any more seriously than we’re supposed to do in the Constitution,” she said.

“No public comment is going to cause us to not follow those Constitutional criteria,” said Rebecca Szetela, a commissioner who is not affiliated with either party.

UPDATE (Nov. 5, 12:01 a.m. ET): This article was updated to reflect new information about two training sessions the Democratic Party acknowledges hosting.