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  • Writer's pictureIan Sandler-Bowen

The Limits of “Amateurism” and the Need for Actual Expertise in Redistricting:

A somewhat preemptive retrospective on Michigan’s first ICRC, and where to go from here

When the members of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) were selected in August of 2020, none of them had likely heard of § 2 of the VRA, or of “opportunity-to-elect,” or possibly even “contiguity.” In the absolute most fundamental sense of the world, they were amateurs.

Some might argue that that is entirely the point of the MICRC; instead of partisans and politicians drawing maps, you have a bunch of regular people who don’t have concerns of incumbency, political drama, or the myriad other factors at play when politicians draw their own maps. However, I argue that “amateurism” is not a good argument for insufficiently educating and informing the commissioners once they have been seated. Keeping the commissioners at an “amateur” level when it comes to mapping leads to lower-quality maps, and regrettably, that has largely been the case in this redistricting cycle.

As someone who has been a total amateur at redistricting, I understand the challenges and struggles associated with mapping better than many in the general public, and I sympathize with the MICRC’s plight. Over the course of this piece, I will suggest several policy changes to be implemented ahead of the next ICRC’s seating, and explain why these changes are important for giving the Commissioners the tools necessary to draw good maps.

The first proposal I have to improve the Commission’s work is to require the Commissioners to complete a college-level educational course on the history and social dynamics of Michigan. This would range from looking at the historical animosity toward Detroit by its white suburbs, the decline of Mining in the UP, the history of the Dutch population in West Michigan, the numerous crises in and around Flint, among many other things. It is critical that Commissioners have a solid understanding of the history behind why Michigan’s communities are the way they are, and having this baseline knowledge underlying their approach to key concerns like the VRA and Communities of Interest (COI’s) will be an invaluable asset.

My second suggestion is that the Commission take on consultants from any two Michigan Public Universities to conduct research on COI’s based on demographic data, history, economic data, and major contemporary events (e.g. the Flint Water Crisis). While it is important for the public to be able to provide input on COI’s, when left unchecked, certain small groups can push the MICRC to draw certain configurations for districts that may not have supporting data, and in doing so may further fracture other COI that are under-represented in commentary, but would show up in an academic review. An example of this is the Bangladeshi COI, which was provided to the Commission by numerous engaged commenters. While it is verifiably true that there is a very substantial Bangladeshi population in and around Hamtramck, commenters told the MICRC that there were a substantial number of Bangladeshi Americans, specifically around one hundred thousand, in Warren and Sterling Heights as well. Between the entirety of the city of Detroit, plus Hamtramck, Warren, Centerline, and Sterling Heights, the 2020 Census showed merely 50,742 people who identified racially as “Asian.” Even making the extremely generous assumption that all of these people are Bangladeshi-American (which is verifiably false), the census would have to have undercounted 50,000 Bangladeshi-Americans in order to make this number work. If you remember, that’s half the population of the so-called “Bangladeshi COI.” I am not in any way criticizing the Bangladeshi activists who advocated for this COI. The fact that several finalist congressional maps put part of Warren with Detroit is a testament to their impressive organizing. Rather, I am criticizing the Commission for not critically reviewing COI arguments, some of which can be proven factually misleading. This speaks to the larger role of the academically researched COI: to provide the MICRC with a starting point to view COI and the tools with which to spot bogus comments, like the “united Ottawa,” or “united Livingston” COI’s, which effectively worked to sneak the second least important criteria into the top three. Public comments ought to supplement and fill in the holes not covered by the academic research, not be the only data with which the MICRC is working. Far too often the Commission has gone for the “I saw a comment…” or “Community X says it wants to be with Community Y,” with the underlying narrative frequently being based on a single public comment, or a set of comments that were clearly copied and pasted into the portal. This isn’t inherently bad, but when it’s the only way that the MICRC is gauging COI, it can be quite problematic.

My third suggestion is that the Commissioners familiarize themselves with the actual practice of mapping much, much sooner in the process, even if it means drawing with slightly older data. I would suggest that Commissioners learn about partisan fairness, and the other criteria they are looking for at the same time they are taking in the academically researched COI, and they should be looking at drawing maps with full election data-sets and as up-to-date population numbers as they can. Commissioners ought to familiarize themselves with partisan and demographic data early on so that they can make informed decisions about mapping when it gets down to the wire. Even if the population and demographic numbers shift, it is far easier to start working with new data while already having an understanding of mapping, as opposed to starting from scratch. It takes a very long time to get comfortable with mapping, and Commissioners should get started as early as they can to give themselves sufficient time for the “growing pains” of redistricting.

Finally, it is critical that the MICRC’s VRA expert is very clear about what is required under the VRA and federal law, and what is merely a policy choice that is merely permitted under the VRA and the 14th Amendment. Minimizing confusion about this complex topic must be a top priority, as the current draft State House maps are frankly an example of the ‘worst-case’ scenario that happens when this clarity isn’t achieved quickly, and with plenty of time to be taken into account while mapping.

I hope that the outcome of these suggested adjustments would be a group of Commissioners who have the tools necessary to not just complete the job of drawing Michigan’s congressional and legislative lines for the next decade, but to excel at it.


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