An assessment of Michigan's redistricting process

December 5, 2022

In the aftermath of the first election that used newly-drawn districts in Michigan, created by an independent citizen’s commission, the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy and the Program in Practical Policy Engagement hosted a Policy Talk to examine the results. The panel was moderated by Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Michigan State University. Panelists included Moon Duchin, a mathematician at Tufts University who runs the MGGG Redistricting Lab as part of the Tisch College of Civic Life, Zach Gorchow executive editor and publisher of Gongwer News Service, and Nancy Wang, executive director and a founding member of Voters Not Politicians, the grassroots group that led the successful 2018 ballot initiative campaign to amend the Michigan constitution.

Here are excerpts from the conversation. 

Matt Grossman: We had Michigan and Michigan State faculty working together to train and guide the commission and Michigan and Michigan State students working together to help the commission with their public comment process. This first time process has been an opportunity to try out a new approach to redistricting to draw fair maps. 

Despite a lot of local criticisms, Michigan's experience is now seen as a national model. 

On the positive side, the Michigan maps replaced maps that were drawn to benefit the party that drew them with maps designed to reflect statewide voting. Under the old maps, Republicans only had to win districts with a built in advantage of more Republicans living there to gain a majority in both state legislative chambers. Under the new maps, the parties have to compete over districts with minimal partisan lanes as well as those that have more normally Republican voters and those that have more normally Democratic voters. This produced a real change. If you add up all the votes statewide for the House and the Senate Democrats got more votes by one and 1.5% in the two chambers, and they will end up with similarly small advantages in seats. That wasn't the case over the last few cycles, even when parties got a similar share of statewide votes, they didn't get that share of seats. The maps allowed the statewide vote to match the seat count. 

The biggest concern with the map's performance this year definitely reflected the distribution of Michigan black population and the failure to elect black candidates. The commission’s pursuit of Voting Rights Act compliance strategy, directed by lawyers, was to spread African American voters into districts with about 40 to 45% black population rather than a smaller number of districts with majority black population. They said that that would lead to black preferred candidates winning in these districts of opportunity. Black representation in particular does seem to be suffering now. 

Unfortunately some might perceive the success of the commission as tied to this potential failure that perhaps we couldn't get fair maps without undermining black representation in Detroit. I don't think that's true. Most of this strategy just moved Black voters in with white Democrats without changing the partisan balance and it wasn't necessary. I think we can learn from Michigan's failures while acknowledging our successes.  

Nancy Wang: I have had an opportunity now to look back on what's been a six year journey and really thrilled to be on the other side of this with our first elections with their new fair maps. A model for the country. We are now have been asked by activists in other states what we thought were our secrets to success 

We were one of the three most gerrymandered states in the entire country where you know our politicians were very clearly not listening to us. Michigan was like a poster child for Project Red Map and what happens when your politicians really have no shame. 

We had election after election where the outcomes had nothing to do with how the voters were voting. We wanted to see a different process by which we could take all the people out who had a vested interest in a certain outcome and replace it so that we could have a chance of voting, and for who we wanted to actually occupy that office. 

Power to the people runs through every part of this whole journey for us. It describes how we all came together and used the only power that we had to override what our legislators were doing by taking the initiative and putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot. 

I think this was successful. I say that with the utmost humility. This is not a perfect process. It's not perfect maps. People have concerns and they're very real. But people were able in Michigan to turn the tide. We ended gerrymandering forever, and we took that power in our hands to determine who holds office in our state forever.

We need to continue talking about these things and how we can improve the process and we need to do that. Continuously until the next redistricting cycle. 

Zach Gorchow: I'm going to discuss a little bit about the domino effect that started in the actual elections once the commission approved the maps for the legislature at the end of December, 2021. This domino effect kicked off with a number of legislators drawn into the same district. Incumbents had to make hard decisions that they would not have had to make in the past, trying to avoid running against other incumbents.

The fundraising aspect of all of this with redistricting, and the big impact really is  that it's going to mean more money is needed in state legislative campaigns because there are more competitive districts in both the House and Senate. There's just only so much money out there available and we saw in some potentially competitive seats, candidates struggling to raise much of anything, and so especially the Democrats were able to parlay to their advantage nationally, money coming in and overwhelmed the Republicans with millions and millions of dollars in out state spending. This redistricting process put Michigan on the radar nationally as a flip of a legislature. So I suppose if you're not a fan of money and politics, and think we need to get money out of politics, that's probably not going to be an outcome of this.

The other thing I wanted to get out was the big question about the racial composition of the legislature and the Senate. There's a pretty significant change going from five black senators down to three and the next term and that is concerning a number of people. If you look at the overall minority representation in the Senate, it will actually go up from six people of color to seven in the next term, because there are going to be two Latino members. There are none. Now you're gonna have an Indian American member, and there's none now. I think if there's a concern, it's got to be that the number of senators from Detroit is going to drop quite severely from 5 to 2. And so I think that's going to have to be something that maybe gets looked at. There's just so much of Detroit that is now going to be represented by suburbanites. 

Moon Duchin: You're certainly hearing lots of victory laps to do with how the election turned out. And a lot of that has to do with the partisan balance. It was one of the goals of the new commission to use procedural fairness, in other words, a transparent process, everything streamed, lots of visibility and produce maps that would give a closer correspondence from voter preferences to the legislature and for Congress. 

There is an explicit effort to create competitive and partisan fair districts. But the outcome was sort of surprising with Democrats following maybe five or five or more seats short of expectations. But there's a reason for that and it's not the map. It's how people voted.

This is something to keep in mind is that line drawers aren't omniscient. Um they're they're trying to make educated guesses about voting behavior for a 10 year span into the future, which is a very difficult thing to do.

In many other processes, you might get a few dozen maps submitted by the public. We got thousands. In the end, the numbers were over 1500 maps that we synthesized into clusters. Within each cluster, we used language processing to summarize the public comments and say what it is that people are talking about. Not just where are they? But what are they saying? This was fun and challenging. 

People wonder very much whether black voters had an effective opportunity to elect their candidates of choice in Michigan this cycle and so to get at that question, you have to really think about what racial fairness looks like. What is racial fairness? What are the keys to majority minority districts? But it's really important to remember that majority minority districts, while they do have a certain role in the legal framework, are not the be all and end all of electoral opportunity. 

Nancy: If you want to see a Democratic gerrymander, I suggest taking a trip down I-94 to Illinois. If you want to see a Republican gerrymander, head south and I-75 to Ohio. Those are gerrymanders where the overwhelming numbers in the legislature, where districts were drawn to maximize electing one party and minimize the election of others. It's really hard to argue this cycle the way it turned out that you had the Democrats sweeping everything at the top of the ticket and by the bare minimum number of seats. The Democrats have control of the Senate and the House. The total votes for those chambers reflected that as well. It's one cycle. There are four more cycles to go with these maps, but at least for this cycle, I don't hear massive screening from the Republicans because their candidates for statewide office lost by substantial margins. 

Were Detroit residents or African American residents disenfranchised by the process? The first priority is compliance with the Voting Rights Act. And as I understand it there is this controversy around, “Will this give minority populations, specifically Black Detroiters, an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates?” There is active litigation on that right now. So I think it's safe to say that there are a lot of questions that the commission had to wrestle with. 

Moon: One alternative that's becoming popular around the country is to use ranked choice in place of plurality elections, which specifically addresses the potential for vote splitting so that you don't need so much party control, trying to clear the field by getting some candidates out of the way to avoid these votes flooding outcomes. 

Nancy: We have been approached by activists in Virginia and North Carolina that are up against such huge odds. And yet they say, “This is so bad like we were in Michigan, we are going to do something.”  So what we advise them then is how to put together a package that would create a fair and just redistricting process, knowing though, that they have a huge uphill battle. So even if there aren't a lot of obvious opportunities, now what? What would we tell them? In terms of how we build our movement, you just have to try. You have to somewhere. You have to have the conversation that leads to the next conversation. 

Moon: I think Michigan is going to play a very important poster child role in moving forward. We had very functional commissions in California and Arizona already, and now Michigan joins the list. From a high level looking down, you see pretty good success, and I think relatively good satisfaction when you get these independent and functional commissions. There are examples that were strikingly less successful. We talk about Ohio, the Virginia Commission deadlocked along partisan lines. There's going to be a balance moving forward of different kinds of strategies. 

One of my themes tonight has been talking about how voters can surprise you. And how things like candidate availability and vote-splitting can produce unexpected effects. There are many different intervention points for reform, and I think it's important to keep all of them in mind. Because healthy representative democracy is the product of this whole large collection of choices.

Zach: This was by far the most competitive cycle I've ever covered in the more than 20 years I've been covering state government politics. Assuming most incumbents do run for reelection the number of competitive seats in 2024 in the Michigan House will be much smaller because as a potential candidate running for an open seat is much more appealing than trying to knock out an incumbent. I wouldn't be surprised if we were to revert back to how things were prior to term limits, where the number of competitive house seats was in the high single digits. We'll have to see, but fewer open seats generally means fewer competitive seats.

Nancy: What happened in these elections, these competitive elections and close elections, are what every voter in Michigan is going to be expecting from here on out.

Matt: Here's hoping that Michigan's new maps will fairly represent our state and make Michigan proud.

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