In Michigan, an effort to take politics out of redistricting

In a gerrymandered state, it's not unusual to see towns carved in half and shared school districts split into different political districts. This is by no means accidental — the redistricting process has long been conducted behind closed doors, under the watchful eye of the very politicians hoping to tip voting lines in their favor. But Michigan may have found a way to break this pattern — and take the politics out of the process. Christopher Booker reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Every ten years since 1790, the U.S. has embarked on a constitutionally-mandated count of its population. 2020 was no different. Despite a pandemic and extended litigation over what questions should be asked, there is now new data on who lives where.

    Tonight, we begin a new occasional series on that data, part of the massive trove of economic and demographic statistics produced by the U.S. Census Bureau. We begin with a look at redistricting, the process by which states use population counts to redraw congressional and state legislative districts.

    States have wide latitude in how they go about this process. The vast majority rely on politicians to draw districts. But since 2010, a growing number of states, including Michigan, have created independent commissions, designed to take this process out of the hands of politicians. In a state that's deeply divided politically, it's a radical experiment in trying to create more fair legislative districts. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Drawing legislative maps is a process that has traditionally been done behind closed doors, in proverbial dark, smoke-filled rooms, by the very politicians who will run in those districts.

  • Rebecca Szetela:

    The motion to amend the resolution is adopted.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But for the first time here in Michigan, redistricting is happening under bright fluorescent lights for anyone to see, in person, or anywhere in the world online. And the process is entrusted to 13 ordinary Michiganders, chosen by lottery from a pool of nearly 10,000 that applied.

  • Meeting:

    Aye!

  • Christopher Booker:

    Four democrats, four republicans, and five unaffiliated voters, this is Michigan's Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. I sat down with three of the commissioners: Douglas Clark, a Republican, Rebecca Szetela, who's unaffiliated, and MC Rothhorn, a Democrat.

    One of the primary quests, if not the primary quest of this process, is to take the politics out of the process. From where you stand, is that possible and does it remain possible as the process continues to unfold?

  • MC Rothhorn:

    I think one of the reasons that we're doing this process in a transparent way is because we are trying to show people that it's possible to do something fairly and have people, citizens doing it. You don't need these professionals, so to speak, the policy, the professional politicians.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The commission needs to draw 110 state house districts, 38 state senate districts, and 13 congressional districts, one fewer than there is right now, meaning at least one congressional incumbent will be without a seat in 2022.

    Did you believe the prior process was broken?

  • Rebecca Szetela:

    Yes.

  • MC Rothhorn:

    I'll say yes, yes

  • Douglas Clark:

    I believe so, one of the comments we hear all the time is start from scratch, get rid of the old maps we hear every place we go.

  • Jocelyn Benson:

    Michigan's maps were a poster child for political gerrymandering and partisanship//

  • Christopher Booker:

    Democrat Jocelyn Benson is Michigan's Secretary of State: the chief elections official and the administrator for the commission.

  • Jocelyn Benson:

    This commission is charged with taking everything into consideration. But they've also been explicitly charged with not taking partisanship into consideration.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Before this redistricting cycle, the maps in Michigan were drawn by the legislature itself. In 2010, that body was controlled by Republicans, and the resulting maps were heavily tilted in the GOP's favor.

  • Jeff Timmer:

    We were very good at playing by the rules and using the rules to our advantage, we being the Republicans.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Jeff Timmer is a former Executive Director of the Michigan Republican Party, and he was a consultant to Republican legislators in 2011 as they drew legislative maps. Even in 2018, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer won a state-wide vote by nearly 10 percentage points, Democrats failed to win control of the state house, the state senate, or a majority of the state's 14 congressional seats.

  • Jeff Timmer:

    We were able to draw maps that were effectively wave proof, gerrymandered them in a way that was able to withstand a wave election like 2018 nearly a decade later, that should have swept Democrats into control in Lansing.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Timmer argues that it's not just that Republicans put their thumbs on the scale. The way people have sorted themselves naturally benefits the GOP, with Democrats more likely to live in denser urban areas, where they win with big margins and republicans more likely to live in rural areas, evenly spread throughout the state. But that urban, rural divide doesn't explain some of the oddly-drawn maps of the last redistricting cycle. take the 11th and 14th congressional districts for example.

    Following the 2010 Census, legislators separated this city of Farmington, from the surrounding community of Farmington Hills. Putting Farmington into a different Congressional District, even though the two communities still send their kids to the same schools. On the map, Farmington looks like a mushroom-shaped blob, carved out of the 14th and added to the 11th.

  • Aimee Ergas:

    It's obvious that we are all together and we educate our kids together. So there's no reason that our neighbors shouldn't be in the same congressional district we are.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Aimee Ergas is a longtime resident of Farmington Hills. After the 2016 election, she was part of a grassroots campaign to change redistricting in Michigan, collecting signatures for a ballot proposal to amend the state's constitution. So what was your pitch line? How do you explain to people political maps?

  • Aimee Ergas:

    Well, really, for us, all we had to do is show them a picture of it, because our districts here are so crazy. I mean, they literally are the definition of gerrymandering. They whined around each other, you know, like this for no apparent reason other than politics.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In 2018, more than 61 percent of voters approved Proposition 2, making Michigan one of 21 states with a redistricting commission responsible for drawing legislative maps. But crucially, it's one of only four where the commission includes no politicians or political appointees and is not subject to review by the legislature.

  • Christopher Booker:

    There is another unique aspect to Michigan's process. After ensuring districts are equal in population, follow federal laws like the Voting Rights Act, and are contiguous, the next priority is that "…districts shall reflect the state's diverse population and communities of interest," which is defined as including but not being limited to "…populations that share cultural or historical characteristics or economic interests."

  • Jocelyn Benson:

    The term communities of interest is inherently subjective and it's inherently defined by the people in that community.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And communities around Michigan have been making their case.

  • Meeting:

    Well, hi everyone, welcome to Kalamazoo.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In town hall meetings around the state, and in hundreds of maps and comments submitted online, citizens have articulated a wide-range of reasons for why they believe they should be grouped together; whether it is a shared watershed, an economic anchor like an airport, or areas disproportionately impacted by pollution from trucks. There are also cultural concerns.

  • Sumon Kobir:

    We have enough people to, you know, you know, pick our own representation. But we cannot do it because we are split into four different districts.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Sumon Kobir and Jabed Chowdhury are two of the leaders of the Bangladesh Association of Michigan. They've helped lead an effort to mobilize their community around redistricting.

  • Sumon Kobir:

    Put all of us in one particular map.

  • Christopher Booker:

    In June, Kobir helped organize more than 50 members of the Bangladeshi community to speak at a redistricting commission meeting.

  • Meeting:

    It would be a good idea to put all Bangladeshi Community members together.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The commission has also heard from people that believe their community needs to be reunited.

  • Noah Arbit:

    The 2011 maps sliced through Greater West Bloomfield to such a degree that even the most attuned voter could struggle to remember which district they live in and who represents them.

  • Christopher Booker:

    26-year-old Noah Arbit testified before the commission in June, bringing a visual aid to show how his suburban community was divided in 2011. He brought me to a corner in West Bloomfield, to show how this heavily Democratic area was separated, allowing a Republican to represent part of the township in the state legislature.

  • Noah Arbit:

    This is the 39th district, the 39th house district, 40th district, same town, West Bloomfield Township.There is no reason that it should be divided this way.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Arbit is an avowed democrat. He's worked for statewide campaigns, founded the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus, and is an aspiring politician himself.

  • Noah Arbit Campaign Video:

    We just can't afford to wait for the same old politicians to get their acts together.

  • Christopher Booker:

    He recently announced that he was running for the Michigan state House of Representatives next year in a yet-to-be finalized district, believing it will likely be more Democratically leaning than it is now.

    Do you have any concern that your voice, which is a partisan one, taints the independent commission at all? They know that you are susceptible to criticism from the right that says this is just a ploy by the left and the Democrats to change the game.

  • Noah Arbit:

    Well, here's what I say, as someone who has worked on partisan political campaigns for candidates, I was ineligible to serve on the commission. And I think that that was an important safeguard to make sure that partisans of either side were not running roughshod over this process. But, you know, it is my right to be able to talk about how I feel my community has been harmed by the, you know, partisan redistricting that we saw in the 2010 cycle.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson says she hopes the process Michigan has put in place can be a national model that truly does not advantage either political party. Is there a hope or belief that this will somehow turn the temperature down a little bit on partisan politics?

  • Jocelyn Benson:

    We can't forget that what this commission is doing is what is typically a very politicized partisan process and the ecosystem that surrounds it. This political ecosystem that is very toxic is still a part of our discourse. But I think the bottom line is what's going to emerge out of this commission is a demonstration that citizens can get it right, even when politicians try to stop them from doing so. And I think we can learn lessons from that in other areas of our democracy as well. [00:20:07][30.5]

  • Jeff Timmer:

    Had I known in 2011 what I know today, I would have walked away and, you know, scream bloody murder.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Former Michigan GOP Executive Director Jeff Timmer has rethought his own role in the process. He's become a fierce critic of former President Trump and the direction of the current Republican party, serving as a senior advisor to the Lincoln Project.

  • Jeff Timmer:

    gerrymandering alone doesn't explain the rise of extremism in our politics, but it certainly is a contributing factor. And when you have a greater number of districts, where Republicans or Democrats only have to answer to the primary electorate voters and not have to moderate their positions in order to attract a majority in November. You get the extreme polarized politics.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But Timmer believes that no matter how hard the commission tries to be neutral, there's no way to take politics out of a political process like redistricting.

  • Jeff Timmer:

    I think what they're going to produce will certainly not advantage the Republican Party in Michigan the way the maps have for the last 20 years. But this attempt to depoliticize redistricting I don't think will actually do that. It will just be politics of a different kind that guide this process.

  • Anthony Eid:

    So now let's take the rest of Dearborn, so making a new district.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The commission already missed its first mapping deadline and is racing to finish proposed maps by mid-November. But even if they reach consensus, it doesn't mean its maps are in the clear. The commission already survived a federal court challenge by the Michigan Republican Party and several Republican-affiliated plaintiffs. And as with redistricting efforts all over the country, more litigation is almost certain. End of the day, do you think you will receive political attacks based on what you create?

  • MC Rothhorn:

    Yes, I think there are powerful interests that have a lot at stake in what we're drawing.

  • Christopher Booker:

    So no matter what you do, correct?

  • Rebecca Szetela:

    Yes. We're going to be attacked regardless of what we do. But I think that's actually clarifying for us because we're not letting it drive us. We're not letting the concern about what particular political group thinks drive us. Instead, we're focused on the process being fair, being transparent and listening to people who come and and give us opinions about where they want the lines drawn.

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