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Several states across the country have redrawn legislative districts on the basis of the 2020 census. In Michigan, the lines were drawn for the first time by an independent commission made up of citizens. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has an update to our report from there, and Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal strategist at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.
It's 2022, which means midterm elections are now less than a year away. And in state legislatures around the country and in almost every congressional district, those elections are being held in newly drawn districts.
Despite delays in gathering data caused by the pandemic, the first phase of redistricting – where states use updated population counts to redraw legislative maps – is now nearly complete.
We wanted to check in on how that process has played out around the country. But first an update from Michigan.
Last September, we brought you a report about the state's inaugural independent redistricting commission. This bipartisan group of citizens has just approved legislative maps in a state that remains deeply divided politically.
NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has this update.
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.
The motion to amend the resolution is adopted.
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.
Four democrats, four republicans, and five unaffiliated voters, this is Michigan's Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.
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?
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.
After months of feverishly working to draw districts and hold constitutionally-mandated public hearings, the commission voted in late December to approve maps for the state house, the state senate and 13 congressional districts. But the process has not been without controversy.
After the commission held closed sessions to discuss legal memos, news outlets sued. and in December, the state Supreme Court ruled that withholding the memos and meeting in private violated the constitution. Litigation on the final maps has also begun.
Last week, a group of current and former Black legislators sued the commission, arguing that the new maps dilute the voting strength of Black voters in the Detroit area. A spokesperson for the Michigan Republican Party also alluded to litigation, tweeting "we are evaluating all options to take steps necessary to defend the voices silenced by this commission"
When we spoke with the commission last year, this outcome was not unexpected. End of the day, do you think you will receive political attacks based on what you create?
Yes, I think there are powerful interests that have a lot at stake in what we're drawing.
So no matter what you do, correct?
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.
For more on Michigan's maps, and how redistricting has been shaping up around the county, I recently spoke with Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal strategist at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.
It's a nonpartisan research group that analyzes redistricting with the aim of eliminating partisan gerrymandering across the country.
So Adam, the project that you're working on gave out letter grades, and I want to know, since we just heard the story about Michigan, how did Michigan do?
Pretty well. For their Congressional map we gave an overall score of an A. And then for both the State House and the State Senate, we gave them both B's. So it's actually compared to a lot of maps across the country they did, they did very well.
And how do you come up with the letter grade? What goes into that?
So are several different factors are feeding into it. We have geography scores, and those are derived from comparing to other maps that we have an independent mapping corp draw. But then I think, perhaps more interestingly, our 'Partisan Fairness' scores and our 'Competitiveness' scores, and those two scores are derived using computer algorithms that draw one million maps. And then we compare the map that was produced by the commission to those million maps and judge it based on whether it falls within expected distributions or whether it's an extreme outlier.
Wow. So Michigan used an independent commission this time, and for the first time it was one of only a handful of states to do this.Has this lead to better grades?
It has. It has what we've seen pretty much across the board in states that use commissions they are scoring just significantly higher than those maps that are drawn by legislators. The maps tend to be fairer on a partisan basis, and they tend to also do better on geography. Actually, they they tend on average to do better at keeping counties and communities together in ways that legislators just don't seem to be doing.
Now, while Michigan might have scored well, there has been gerrymandering in lots of other states during this cycle.
That's that's true. We've seen pretty egregious gerrymanders in a number of states from Illinois, Texas to Georgia and really across the country, we're seeing pretty extreme abuses of the process.
So was it as bad as it could have been, was it better than it should have been? You know, kind of put it in perspective for us because we're looking at an existing map that's already gerrymandered in so many states.
Yeah. So I think in the states where there was process reforms, things have gotten a lot better. So I think, and obviously there are there are no more states where that is new, as you have already referenced where these commissions have been put in place. And so in those states, things are looking significantly better.
But in the states where no reform occurred over the past decade, I actually think things might be slightly worse. The way the map drawers drew the lines in 2010 was such that over the course of a decade, as folks moved around and policy preferences changed, we saw districts change hands. And I think that the way that the lines have been drawn this time, it's much less likely that at the end of the decade, we're going to see that sort of shift in these districts. I think they're pretty solidly held for the next 10 years.
Let's talk a little bit about who's most affected by these gerrymanders. Oftentimes, you know, particular groups are packed into little corners that can sway an election in one direction or another for the opposite team, so to speak. But are people of color or communities that are predominantly filled with people of color or minorities, how does gerrymandering affect them?
So and I think this cycle, particularly, we're seeing really egregious abuses from minority communities with the Supreme Court striking down sort of one of the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County in the past decade. A lot of the protections that minority communities had in redistricting just aren't there anymore. And so we're seeing really across the country that minority communities are not having districts drawn where they're going to have an opportunity to elect.
So we've seen, for example, in North Carolina, it looks like probably one of the Congressional Districts they used to elect a Black congressperson is probably not going to do that in this next cycle. And then, you know, growing Latino populations in states like Texas are not seeing increased representational opportunities in the maps that are being drawn, so it is really profoundly impacting minority communities across the country.
All right. Adam Podowitz-Thomas from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, hanks so much for joining us.
Yeah, thank you.
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