The Drama Surrounding Independent Redistricting Commissions

DETROIT — Natalie Bien-Aime had solely 90 seconds to make her case to Michigan’s citizen-led redistricting fee about why its proposed congressional and state legislative maps merely don’t work.

“I believe they do not represent the best interests of African American voters,” the 51-year-old well being care marketing consultant informed the panel throughout a public listening to this week, earlier than a cellphone timer dinged, abruptly ending her remarks.

“We have a voice and we don’t want to lose our voice,” she mentioned afterward, seated in a socially distanced viewers near a number of Black activists waving white and purple “Fair Maps Now!” indicators at Detroit’s TCF Center.

Bien-Aime was No. Four of 116 audio system who objected overwhelmingly to the fee’s proposals for brand new voting districts. They argued the panel’s drafts violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the landmark legislation outlawing racial discrimination in voting, by breaking apart majority-Black districts within the nation’s largest majority-Black metropolis.

Another speaker was extra pointed: “Start over. These maps are garbage.”

This just isn’t essentially what reformers had envisioned in 2018, when Michigan voters handed a constitutional modification to stamp out excessive partisan gerrymandering with the creation of a 13-member impartial redistricting fee.

“It’s been frustrating to watch the commission draw these maps,” mentioned Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. “They spent a good deal of time drawing maps without considering partisan fairness and without considering the Voting Rights Act, and came up with maps that simply don’t meet those standards.”

Michigan activists object to proposed state legislative and congressional maps at a hearing in Detroit on Oct. 20. The maps, they argue, would dilute votes in the nation's largest Black-majority city.
Michigan activists object to proposed state legislative and congressional maps at a listening to in Detroit on Oct. 20. The maps, they argue, would dilute votes within the nation’s largest Black-majority metropolis.

Liz Skalka/HuffPost

Michigan is only one state the place new our bodies charged with redrawing legislative boundaries for the following decade are falling in need of expectations — notably these set by Democrats who championed these reforms in response to out-of-control GOP gerrymandering following Republicans’ 2010 midterm sweep.

Kelly Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the reform group launched by former Attorney General Eric Holder, defended impartial commissions, even when they’re stopping Democrats from reaping the partisan benefits of gerrymandering to the diploma Republicans have.

“By putting commissions in place across the country, Democrats are saying that we’re not afraid of voters, we’re not afraid of a fair process, and we don’t need to cheat to win,” Burton informed HuffPost in an announcement. “On net, you do get fairer maps out of commissions, even though not all of them are created equal.”

As for Michigan, “the commission’s maps need improvement so they more closely adhere to the guidelines in the state constitution,” Burton mentioned, declaring that an knowledgeable witness testified the legislative maps are extra favorable to Republicans.

Nationwide, there’s loads driving on redistricting for Democrats, who face dropping their skinny House majority in 2022 (the president’s occasion normally cedes floor within the midterms anyway) and the specter of Donald Trump’s return in 2024.

For their half, Republicans succeeded at cementing their energy within the final redistricting and beating again good-government reforms, positioning themselves strongly a decade later. In Texas, the one state to achieve two congressional seats after the 2020 census, GOP lawmakers resisted makes an attempt to swipe their energy for an impartial fee. The result’s a congressional map that doesn’t develop the GOP’s footprint, however creates safer districts for its incumbents. Experts are additionally intently following Georgia, one other increasing state the place Republicans maintain the reins in redistricting. In each states, inhabitants positive factors had been pushed largely by communities of shade which are thought of extra Democratic-leaning.

“Not all reforms are created equal.”

– Michael Li, senior counsel on the Brennen Center

Despite GOP dominance in statehouses, nearly a dozen states are utilizing impartial commissions or reformed methods as an alternative of their legislatures to draft new boundaries for 40% of the nation’s House seats. The adjustments are designed to discourage excessive partisanship and create extra balanced maps. But not each fee capabilities the identical approach, and there’s nonetheless loads of drama surrounding the method.

“Not all reforms are created equal,” mentioned Michael Li, a senior counsel on the Brennan Center for Justice. “I don’t necessarily want to throw anybody under the bus yet because things still are going forward, but there’s been a lot of acrimony on bipartisan as opposed to independent commissions.”

In Colorado, a blue-trending state the place Democrats management the legislature and governorship, the occasion handed over management of redistricting to a citizen-led fee — as an alternative of utilizing its place of energy to assist bolster its House majority. With an additional seat due to congressional reapportionment, the fee returned a map with 4 Democratic seats, three Republican seats, and one toss-up, doubtlessly creating an equal variety of seats for each events in a state President Joe Biden received by over 13 proportion factors in 2020.

In Virginia, a bipartisan panel composed of each residents and state legislators devolved into partisan chaos over state legislative maps and punted that job to the Virginia Supreme Court. Now Democrats are pushing again towards a proposed congressional map that creates a good cut up the place they presently have a 7-Four edge.

In Michigan, a presidential battleground with a GOP legislature and Democratic governor, Democrats are objecting to state legislative maps projected to provide Republicans a bonus. At the identical time, they acknowledge they’re higher off than with the choice: excessive gerrymanders handed down by Republicans in Lansing.

“This independent commission is absolutely better than having legislators drawing their own maps — but it’s still not where it should be,” Barnes mentioned.

That’s the sensation for a lot of in Michigan’s largest metro space, mentioned Michael Joseph, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in Detroit. At the listening to this week, Joseph argued towards diluting majority-minority districts anchored in Detroit, and mentioned voters in these districts deserve representatives from their very own communities, not the suburbs. (The fee has defended the maps, saying they consulted consultants of their interpretation of the Voting Rights Act and are attempting to stability competing pursuits and pointers.)

“Your plan, for the next 10 years, will deny Black and brown [constituents] in Michigan the opportunity to select representatives from their neighborhoods” to ship to Washington or their college boards, Joseph informed the commissioners.

Michigan presently has 17 majority-Black voting districts: two for Congress (Democratic Reps. Brenda Lawrence and Rashida Tlaib) and 15 for the state legislature. But the maps on the desk would make all of them lower than 50% Black, which voters like Joseph say is unacceptable.

“Your plan negates what fairness and balanced voting brings to our democracy and our communities,” he informed the commissioners.

The buck stops with residents in Michigan, but it surely’s not that approach in each state that has an impartial fee. New York is the last word check for whether or not Democrats can stand by their professed values. The occasion there controls each lever of presidency and might override its citizen redistricting fee beneath political strain to pad its House majority.

“Can they be disciplined enough to say we believe in fairness and good governance enough to allow this commission to operate? Or will they usurp that power and then just gerrymander the heck out of the state because they’re afraid that Republicans are going to do that in Texas and in Georgia?” mentioned Doug Spencer, a redistricting legislation knowledgeable at University of Colorado Law School.

If there’s one factor that Democrats shouldn’t fear about within the quick time period, it’s much more positive factors for the GOP, Spencer mentioned. That’s as a result of Republicans had been in a position to gerrymander so successfully in 2011, there’s mainly no room for them to develop.

“They’re already very near the extreme of the kinds of seats they would be able to get,” he mentioned. “So while [Republicans] control the process completely, they are pretty close to the cap of the kind of seats they could naturally get.”

But that’s much less of a consolation for Detroit voters, who don’t danger getting lumped in with GOP districts, however who’re nonetheless combating for honest illustration.

“You know what? When we had Republicans part of this process, we at least advanced with two majority [Black] seats in Congress,” Detroit college board member Sherry Gay-Dagnogo informed the commissioners. “Under your plan — zero.”