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'Success stories': Michigan, Virginia adopt new maps after creating redistricting commissions

Residents of Michigan and Virginia voted to overhaul the redistricting process. Here's how their new maps shape up.
Image: Voters Cast Ballots In Virginia Governor Election
Voters fill out ballots at a polling location in Fairfax, Va., on Nov. 2.Stefani Reynold / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Election experts are hailing new congressional maps adopted this week in Michigan and Virginia as major victories after voters approved ballot measures to overhaul the redistricting process.

Michigan's maps were finalized Tuesday by an independent citizens redistricting commission, which was established by a state constitutional amendment in 2018, while Virginia's were approved the same day by the state Supreme Court following the work of a bipartisan panel.

While neither state had an easy go of it, advocates nonetheless lauded the results as testaments to the power of election reforms and characterized them as significant improvements over previous maps.

"Compared to last decade, when Virginia had racially gerrymandered maps and Michigan had partisan gerrymandering? These are much fairer maps," said Michael Li, a redistricting expert and senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. "It's night and day between states that aren't reforming and states that did enact reforms."

States redraw their congressional maps to reflect population changes, usually every 10 years after the U.S. census. The process has become deeply partisan, prompting some states to take map-drawing authority away from legislators.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 18 states have some kind of congressional redistricting commission, with varying degrees of responsibility. Most states let lawmakers draw the district lines, frequently leading to gerrymandered maps.

The new maps in Michigan and Virginia, however, are wins for voters, said Doug Spencer, a University of Colorado law professor and expert in redistricting.

"Both of these are success stories," he said.

'An example of how reforms can work'

Michigan's 13-member commission approved its congressional maps with support from eight members: two Republicans, two Democrats and four unaffiliated commissioners.

The new districts are likely to result in five competitive seats, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which gave Michigan's map an A-minus for partisan fairness. Just three Michigan House seats were competitive last year, according to NBC News' results.

Overall, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project said, seven Democrats and six Republicans are poised to win seats next year.

"Michigan is a battleground state, and they got battleground state maps. That's a marked contrast to what you had last decade," Li said.

Michigan's 14-member congressional delegation is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The state is losing a House seat based on the 2020 census results.

The redistricting commission's road to finalizing the maps was a bumpy one. Early drafts were widely criticized, and the panel's decision to discuss the Voting Rights Act behind closed doors with its attorney sparked blowback, with a court ordering the public release of details from the private meeting.

While election experts say the end result was positive, not everyone is pleased.

The state GOP, which had long enjoyed control over the map-drawing process because of its majority in the Legislature, has suggested that it might sue.

There also aren't any Black majority districts; compared with the two previous ones in and around Detroit, raising questions about whether Black Democrats will bring a challenge under the Voting Rights Act. Under the new maps, there are two districts where Black voters are about 44 percent of the voting population. An attorney for the commission argued in a recently released memo that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 only requires seats that give minority voters the chance to elect representatives of their choice, not majority-minority seats.

"There were a lot of growing pains in Michigan," Li said. "But I think Michigan is an example of how reforms can work, can really be powerful, in a way that will not only make democracy better, but will actually make people's actual lives better."

A deadlocked commission, but 'good maps'

The Virginia Supreme Court took over the map drawing process this fall, after the commonwealth's bipartisan redistricting commission — which voters created in a referendum last year — deadlocked and announced that its members were unable to compromise with one another.

The court appointed two special masters — one nominated by Democrats, the other by the GOP — to draw a new map that is likely to give Democrats a 6-5 edge in the commonwealth's congressional delegation, down from their current 7-4 advantage.

Spencer, of the University of Colorado, said Virginia is unique in that the bipartisan commission failed but "they did get good maps" in the end.

"Commissions are just a reflection of our community. So if our community is extremely divisive, just putting ordinary people in a room isn't going to solve that problem. But there are ways to develop rules that can overcome that problem," he said. "The institutional design features really matter."

The key design feature in Virginia's process, experts said, is that a deadlocked commission puts the map-drawing process in the hands of the court, instead of a partisan entity. In Ohio, for example, lawmakers were able to sidestep a new commission and regain control of the process.

Virginia and Michigan offer instructive examples for states considering reforming their redistricting processes, Spencer said, even if their paths were difficult.

"Really, what we want is for the public to trust these maps, so that they'll engage in the maps and use the political process to solve their disputes and not ransack the Capitol or kidnap the governor or all these crazy things that people have done outside the political process because they don't trust the political process," he said.