Michigan’s new redistricting commission can finally get to work drawing political boundaries based on 2020 population figures, following the release Thursday of the localized census data needed for the process.
But the commissioners are pressed up against a tight schedule, and they indicated Thursday they won’t have the final proposal ready for public review until Nov. 14.
That would blow the deadline for finalizing the new maps by Nov. 1, which is set by the state Constitution. Instead, the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission aims to adopt the official maps by Dec. 30.
“We had American Community Survey data that was somewhat helpful, but having real Census data is imperative to the work that the commission is doing,” said Suann Hammersmith, executive director for the commission. “We can start with rigor now.”
The commission is likely to encounter litigation when it fails to meet the Sept. 17 deadline to produce draft maps for 45 days of public review — a conflict the commission was hoping to avoid when it unsuccessfully petitioned the Michigan Supreme Court earlier this year to move back the constitutional deadlines.
The commission’s work has been delayed for months by the late arrival of the census data, which is four months past previous census releases, due in part to the coronavirus pandemic.
The redistricting commission has spent its first months holding public hearings and hiring staff. With Thursday’s release, the group may finally begin to crunch the census data and debate how to reshape the political boundaries for state legislative and congressional districts.
“Now, the time has come. They’ve got to get about the business of doing this,” said demographer Kurt Metzger, who is the mayor of Pleasant Ridge. “It’s a super sprint. Then, the maps are up for 45 days of public comment.”
The new data will show the commissioners where the lines may be drawn based on where the state population grew or faded, but they must also consider other factors, including input they’ve been collecting in public meetings from communities around the state this year.
The data released Thursday by the Census Bureau is coming in what’s called a “legacy format,” meaning it must be converted before it can be read properly by most mapping software.
The Census found that Michigan’s population as of April 1, 2020, was at 10,077,331 — up almost 2% from the 2010 count of 9,883,640.
The commission’s contractor for map drawing, Election Data Services of Virginia, has said the firm will take about a week to process the data before it’s ready. First up will be drawing the map for state Senate races.
“After today’s download from the Census Bureau, we will begin building the data base and ultimately by next week we’ll have the full state database,” Election Data Services’ Kimball Brace told commissioners Thursday.
How the commissions redraw district lines could have major political implications for Michigan incumbents. The partisan composition of their district could shift or their hometown could be drawn into another district where one of their colleagues resides.
More:5 key places to watch in Michigan’s U.S. House redistricting fight
The process also carries high stakes for control of the U.S. House of Representatives, where Democrats hold the majority with a narrow three-seat margin and face tough historical odds in next year’s midterm elections. Michigan’s House delegation is split 7-7 between Democrats and Republicans.
State population data released by the Census in April already determined that Michigan will again lose a seat in Congress, falling from 14 to 13 House members due to its population growing slowly compared with other states.
The commission will decide how and where to eliminate that seat, which will tip the composition of the state’s delegation to favor one party.
“With a new commission system, it’s really hard to handicap what might happen,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst who studies Congress at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“We don’t know if they’ll rip up the old map, which is a Republican gerrymander, or if they will end up making just minimal changes,” he added.
“It’s all up to this commission, which we haven’t seen in action before. It’s uncharted territory. Particularly because we don’t have any past history about how this Michigan commission will behave.”
Under a schedule approved Thursday, the Michigan commission will begin drawing draft maps for the state Senate’s 38 districts starting Aug. 19, followed by the drawing of the 110 state House districts beginning Aug. 30 — tackling both sets of maps by region.
The commission will move next to mapping the state’s 13 congressional districts from Sept. 15-22.
The commission will draw the maps “from scratch,” meaning they will be based on the new data and not use prior maps as a starting point for the new ones, Hammersmith said.
The commission will then deliberate over the maps during the last week of September. Between Sept. 30 and Oct. 8, Election Data Services will ensure the data it processed matches the tabulated data the Census Bureau plans to release Sept. 30in a more user-friendly format.
“We don’t want to presume everything went perfect,” Hammersmith said of EDS’ initial tabulation. “We suspect it will be very close, if not spot on.”
The draft maps will be published for review Oct. 8 and public hearings on those maps are planned for later that month. Further deliberations on the maps will take place between Oct. 29 and Nov. 5, when the commission will vote on the new sets of proposed districts.
Election Data Services will produce the maps, data and legal descriptions through Nov. 13, so all of that information is available by Nov. 14, which will mark the start of a constitutionally required 45-day public comment period that would end Dec. 29.
The commission could vote as early as Dec. 30 to adopt the final maps.
Priority factors in mapping
One of the things that Thursday’s data will reveal is how well the 2020 census was conducted — for instance, whether people of color were undercounted in certain communities.
Many stakeholders will seek out the topline number in their city or county, weighing if it seems lower than anticipated, Metzger said.
For example, was the Hispanic count potentially pushed lower because of comments about proving citizenship made by former President Donald Trump, or by the effect of the pandemic or lack of internet to fill out the census form.
If a locality believes its 2020 count is inaccurate, it can undertake a formal process to challenge it with the Census Bureau — something Metzger expects the city of Detroit and others will do.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, last year announced plans to fight the Census Bureau’s “deficient and haphazard counting effort,” predicting the city’s population tally to come up short.
The data released Thursday showed Detroit’s population dropping 10.5% to 639,111 — down almost 75,000 residents from a decade ago. A 2019 estimate pegged the city at more than 670,000 residents.
Duggan said Thursday the Census had failed to count 25,000 occupied houses with running electricity, undercounting the city population by at least 10%. “We will be pursuing our legal remedies to get Detroit an accurate count,” the mayor said in a statement.
But even if the challenge is successful, that won’t affect redistricting — only population estimates going forward, Metzger said.
“For all intents and purposes, there’s one shot, and that one shot is what you have to live with,” he said.
“And if it seems the numbers are lower in minority or low-income communities, that’s obviously going to play a part when the districts are redrawn.”
Michigan used to have partisan lawmakers in the state Legislature handle the redistricting process until voters in 2018 created a new independent commission of citizens for the task.
Under the new process, maps will have to be drawn according to several criteria in order of their priority:
Equal population among the districts, then geographic contiguity, reflection of the state’s “communities of interest,” the avoidance of a disproportionate advantage for a political party, the avoidance of favor for any incumbent or candidate, reflection of county or municipal boundaries and that the districts are “reasonably compact.”
Experts have said that, while not required, the redistricting commission will likely try to preserve both of the Black-majority districts in the Detroit area, in part because of federal voting rights protections for minority voters.
But it’s the state’s third criteria, communities of interest, and its prominent priority that has worried experts who argue the concept is overly broad and could allow commissioners to draw maps according to nonsensical qualifiers.
The definition of a community of interest under state law includes shared cultural, historical or economic characteristics, but not relationships with incumbents or political parties.
“This is the first test of what in fact the commission themselves feel constitutes a community of interest,” said Bob LaBrant, a Republican strategist who has been instrumental in drawing Michigan’s past district maps.
With communities of interest higher in priority than county lines, it’s likely that the use of counties or towns as guides for voter boundaries will disappear, LaBrant said.
“It appears to me that’s pretty much going to go the way of the Dodo bird, and there will perhaps be some new, unique districts,” he said.
Metzger said he’s interested in how the commission will endeavor to make the districts potentially more compact than the oddly shaped bordersnders that lawmakers produced in previous decades.
“With the voter suppression stuff and the gerrymandering that’s going to go across the country, the pressure on this bunch is going to be immense,” Metzger said.
“A lot of people are going to be watching what this group is doing now.”