The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is nearing the end of its work to draft new maps to end partisan gerrymandering.
The mission was simple – use an independent commission instead of the state legislature to redesign the state and federal legislative districts as approved by state voters in 2018 – but the job turned out. hard.
Tom Ivacko, director of the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan, has been at the forefront from the start. He and his colleagues provided materials and training and education sessions for the commissioners and organized a commission meeting in September as well as one scheduled for this week.
He shares his observations on the progress of the process and the commission, including the ups and downs, and what might happen to us.
What do you think of the work of the commission to date?
It’s hard to sum up, because the commission has done so much work over the past year. First, our rating scale must be realistic: There is no such thing as a perfect map of state districts, and even if there were, probably one-third to one-half of the state’s residents would be unhappy with it.
In addition, the commission’s work was delayed for several months due to delays in the US census, a serious scheduling problem. The MICRC must also follow a set of complex, layered and hierarchical criteria when designing districts, although some of these requirements are nebulous, such as the management of communities of interest.
Finally, the commission received thousands of suggestions from residents and groups, most of them competing and conflicting. They faced a learning curve and made mistakes, but how have they done so far? On a realistic scale, pretty good, all things considered.
They didn’t do everything as well as they could, there were some gaps. But they appear to have been extremely transparent in their work, despite having a closed-door meeting with their legal advisers. The commissioners actively reached out to involve the public in the process, and spent a fair amount of time discussing the comments.
As a group, they learned a lot and became adept at drawing cards. The commission has done a fairly good job of trying to improve partisan fairness, although many observers believe they have failed. They have deliberately ignored where current Michigan politicians live, so as not to give them unfair advantages. They came under heavy criticism from all sides and continued. And they tried to meet the other criteria they face as well, including the voting rights law, which was difficult.
They faced a tall order, especially since it was the first time for Michigan’s New Approach. Although the commission has encountered a number of obstacles in the way, it could have derailed several times over the past year, but so far it has largely remained on track and has continued to move towards respectable cards.
Where did you see the will of the voters confirmed and where did it fail? Democrats and Republicans, for example, called on the commission to close a session to the public when it was constitutionally required to conduct all of its business in public meetings.
By endorsing the state’s new approach to redistribution, voters in 2018 called for basic transparency and fairness in this process. As stated above, I think overall the MICRC has performed quite well on these overall goals, although we will have to reserve the final judgment until we see the final cards they adopt.
In terms of transparency, it is true that there was one incident where the MICRC met behind closed doors with its legal counsel, to hear or discuss issues related to the Voting Rights Act and the history of discrimination. in Michigan. People on the left and right of our political spectrum were unhappy with the lack of transparency at this meeting. The commission also blocked the release of 10 memos, with allegations of attorney-client privilege, and that’s difficult to reconcile with its burden of working completely in the open. But it is also important to note that probably 99% of the commission’s activities were carried out in the open, with the public being encouraged to participate on site and all of its work broadcast live online. In comparison, the last rounds of redistribution were carried out behind closed doors, with very little transparency or civic engagement.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest challenges the commission has faced is how to handle the concept of communities of interest, a new idea for Michigan’s redistribution, with a vague definition open to wide interpretation. At various points in their work, they paid more or less attention to COI issues, and they never found a systematic way to deal with the very many contributions they received. Although they used hard data and metrics to assess other criteria, including equal population across districts, compact district shapes, and partisan equity, they never found an effective way to convert all of them. COI-focused inputs into data that could more objectively guide their work. For this reason, much of the focus on COIs seemed ad hoc, subjective, incomplete and overall not very satisfactory.
Do you see a way forward here that all can embrace, or at least accept?
While it works pretty well as a band overall, there has been some friction. Each commissioner brings a different perspective, context and way of thinking to this process, which can make it difficult to find common ground.
However, I think they are all committed to the responsibilities they have accepted and want to produce cards that will stand up to any potential lawsuits and show that Michigan’s new approach can work. I won’t be surprised if they don’t come to a full consensus on which cards they end up adopting, but I suspect a strong majority will support the final cards in the end.
As for Michigan residents, however, I think few will be completely satisfied, most will be relatively satisfied, and a significant number will be very disappointed with the results.
How does CLOSUP plan to assess the committee’s recommendations following final deliberations?
CLOSUP is working with our colleagues at the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University on a Joyce Foundation-funded project to assess the commission’s work, including the maps they adopt and the process they used to produce them. IPPSR has already produced an interim evaluation report and will publish an updated version after the adoption of the final maps at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, most of the public testimonials that have been submitted over the past year are currently stored in PDF transcript documents, so CLOSUP has a team of students who are converting this testimony into a database format that can be used for research to see how public comments are or are not reflected in the cards. As with all of our work, we will make the data available to all interested researchers, and we plan to involve UM students in this research over the coming years.
Finally, we plan to bring together some redistribution experts for a final webinar in our four-part series to help all of us understand how the commission is performing and if they have any suggestions on how to improve the process for the next time around. .