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Michigan Redistricting Struggles With Urban-Rural Divide

Some residents argue that the urban areas should remain separate from the suburban and rural areas as they represent different lifestyles. Others argue the continued separation of urban areas perpetuates gerrymandering.

(TNS) — During their hours-long mapping sessions in recent weeks, Michigan's redistricting commissioners at times have grappled with the question of whether cities should remain whole or broken and combined with suburbs in the new maps.

During public testimony, some residents have advocated for keeping urban areas separate from suburban and rural regions based on differences of interest and lifestyle among the regions. They've argued the commission's dictate to respect communities of interest requires the separation of those communities as commission members redraw lines for state House, state Senate and congressional districts.

Others have argued districts drawn to isolate urban areas will perpetuate gerrymandered maps that packed Democratic voters into cities instead of balancing districts by combining city segments with more Republican-leaning suburbs.

The 13 commissioners have differed about what should be done with urban areas. A recent flare-up among the four Democrats, four Republicans and five unaffiliated members involved whether the city of Grand Rapids should be lumped in with its suburbs when it comes to making House districts.

"I absolutely dislike Grand Rapids right now," said Commissioner Rebecca Szetela, a non-partisan member of the commission from Wayne County, at an August meeting. "I think it was drawn for a perspective of maintaining partisan balance at the expense of very consistent testimony that we heard about communities of interest of those metro six communities being kept together."

Commissioner Anthony Eid, also an independent from Orchard Lake, said the commission will likely have to debate the issue and come to a consensus on how to treat urban areas.

"There are probably going to be some cities that are more paired with suburbs, some cities that are more paired together with their brothers and sisters in the city," Eid said.

"We have a situation — especially for the state House and state Senate districts — where the population for a lot of cities are too large to keep them in one district. That means we have to split them somewhere. The question is, where do we do that?"

The commission's general counsel on Tuesday reminded commission members that districts do not have to be drawn to be politically competitive but do need to reflect partisan fairness that does not give a "disproportionate advantage to any political party."

Within the next month, experts will review the partisan fairness for the state's 161 districts — 110 House areas, 38 Senate regions and 13 congressional districts, commission spokesman Edward Woods said. The constitutional language that created the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission and was approved by voters in 2018 ranks partisan fairness fourth in importance, behind equal population, geographical contiguity and diverse populations or communities of interest.

"The seven ranked redistricting criteria clearly outline the process for the commission to follow," Woods said. "As you already know, this is the law. Once again, political competitiveness is not a redistricting criterion."

The Urban, Rural Divide

Draft Senate districts adopted this past week gave an early indication about how the commission would treat cities. Grand Rapids was split in two and combined with its outlying suburbs, while Lansing and East Lansing were largely broken apart to distribute their populations into two districts that were otherwise comprised of suburban and rural communities.

The current Senate districts, drawn by Republicans in 2011, kept Grand Rapids largely in its own district and grouped most of Lansing and East Lansing together. Lansing and East Lansing are Democratic strongholds.

Commissioners got an earful Thursday from residents unhappy with East Lansing's grouping with more rural areas in Shiawassee and Clinton counties, which lean Republican.

Owosso Mayor Christopher Eveleth noted Shiawassee County traditionally has been aligned with more rural parts of mid- Michigan, not with the student-heavy, urban environment of East Lansing.

" Shiawassee has been and remains part of a rural, agricultural mid- Michigan," Eveleth said. "Combining Owosso with East Lansing simply makes no sense."

Public participants in Ann Arbor earlier this month took a different tack, railing against urban isolation in voting districts.

"One of the greatest threats to our democracy, though, is the extreme polarization being driven in part by perceived differences between urban and rural residents," said Theresa Reid at a Sept. 2 meeting, noting residents shared interests such as broadband availability, affordable health care and easy food access.

"... Maintaining the artificial boundaries between urban and rural areas obscures these common interests and drive further polarization."

Jerry Young of Monroe expressed similar concerns about isolating urban areas within districts at the Ann Arbor meeting.

"Partisan fairness is more important than following the city or county lines and making these compact districts," Young said. "Funny shapes are OK, but what's not OK are districts is a system that does not adequately represent the people."

Still Early in Process

Commissioners are early in the process, experts stressed.

The panel will likely finish its draft Senate maps this week, followed by congressional districts and then House voting boundaries. Even after the drafts are complete, there will be weeks of public hearings and then 45 days of public comment before a final plan is adopted.

Under the Constitution, the final plan doesn't pass with a simple majority vote. It requires the approval of at least two Democrats, two Republicans and two unaffiliated members.

In recent weeks, the commission has focused its initial efforts on getting some sort of map in place, focusing largely on population, municipal boundaries and some communities of interest. Racial makeup, communities of interest and partisan fairness will be considered further as the process moves forward.

Besides being early in the process, the idea of isolating cities is simply not doable for some areas because of population requirements, said Adrian Hemond, a Democrat and CEO of the consulting firm Grassroots Midwest in Lansing.

For example, Detroit has a population of 639,111 in the 2020 census, but any congressional district encompassing the city needs 775,000-plus people forcing commissioners to push into suburban areas.

"You can't just make a district that's centered on the city of Detroit," Hemond said.

Commissioners should be wary of backing themselves into a corner and "a sort of unintentional partisan gerrymander," said Nancy Wang, executive director for Voters Not Politicians, the group that placed the new redistricting process on the 2018 ballot.

"This debate and the fact that its kind of unfolding in public is exactly the way this is supposed to occur," Wang said. "The commission is trying to do its best to work through these issues in public. The transparency that was built into the process is serving its purpose."

With weeks left of public comment, it's likely the draft districts currently available will change prior to final adoption, Hemond said.

"What the commission has done up until now, the maps they have published so far, doesn't tell you much about what the final maps will look like," he said.

"We're a long way away from anything like a final map and then the litigation will start."

Commissioners, Wang said, should balance public comments with actual data from areas to determine real joint interests between communities, such as commuter numbers between the suburbs and urban areas.

"Partisan balance, partisan fairness is a statewide measure, and just because it's No. 4 (in priority) doesn't mean it's not important," Wang said.

(c)2021 The Detroit News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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