Communities left questioning the redistricting process as they don’t see themselves represented

Community Redistricting is a series about how Michigan communities are working together to end gerrymandering so that all residents have a voice at the local, state, and federal level. This series is made possible with funding from the Michigan Nonprofit Association.

10/1/2021 - Jonathan : This is undoubtedly the best representation of a community of interest. I wholeheartedly support this initiative. Keep Palmer Park together!!

9/30/2021 - Theresa Landrum (Detroit): The strength of a community lies in its cohesiveness. So Palmer Park needs to stay together.

7/2/2021 - Luis (Detroit): I think this would be very beneficial to the residents of these districts, including myself. Hopefully they make the right decision!

Jerron Totten has a question for the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

If the purpose of the Michigan Redistricting Public Comment Portal was to enable the public, as the website itself states, “to submit public comment to the Commission, and tell them what’s important to know as they draw the new district lines,” why was the most popular map submitted not reflected in any of the Commission’s recently released draft maps?

“Why would you ask for engagement and not act accordingly to the input that you received?” says Totten. “They should keep Palmer Park whole; this is what the public has asked for and they have ignored our wishes.”

The above comments from Jonathan, Theresa, and Luis are just three of 98 comments left on the map titled Palmer Park 2.0, a community of interest map submitted by LGBT Detroit to the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) on June 16. The public’s response to LGBT Detroit’s map has been overwhelmingly positive, the amount of comments that it’s received far outpaces nearly all of the other maps submitted. Yet still, despite LGBT Detroit’s efforts to have Palmer Park represented within one voting district, the draft maps released by the MICRC in October split Palmer Park 2.0 apart.

Jerron Totten, social outreach coordinator and legislative advocacy specialist for LGBT DetroitThat’s frustrating for community leaders like Jerron Totten, social outreach coordinator and legislative advocacy specialist for LGBT Detroit, the largest Black-found and led LGBT nonprofit organization in North America, according to their map submission. Palmer Park has been a destination neighborhood for Detroit’s LGBTQ community since the 1960s and LGBT Detroit’s map strived to keep that community represented within the same district, increasing their chances of electing representatives that truly represent them.

With the draft maps splitting their own map apart, Totten fears that his neighbors will be left without proper representation in resolving neighborhood issues. He points to the nearby Amazon distribution center development, currently under construction on the old State Fairgrounds site, as one such issue disrupting the community.

“If we do not have the right representation in our State House and State Senate, the gentrification pushing out this community is more likely to happen,” Totten says.

Communities cut out

LGBT Detroit is one of 38 nonprofits that make up a coalition formed by the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA). Each of the nonprofits represent a “community of interest,” one of seven factors the MICRC is supposed to take into account when drawing the state’s new political maps as part of the redistricting process. The MNA has been organizing nonprofits around their own communities of interest, assisting them through the map-drawing process in hopes of achieving better political representation for the state’s minority populations and other marginalized communities.

Bob Chunn, president and co-founder of RelA2ve, an Ann Arbor-based technology firm, has been working hand-in-hand with the MNA and their nonprofit coalition, guiding them through the redistricting process with help from the company’s NextVote mapping technology. He’s helped nonprofits like LGBT Detroit draw their maps, craft their narratives, and submit them to the MICRC for consideration. Like Totten, the draft maps splitting communities of interest like Palmer Park has Chunn frustrated.

“LGBT Detroit had gotten more public support for their map than anything else that's on the portal and yet every one of the maps that the MICRC produced cuts right through the middle of LGBT Detroit,” Chunn says. “So the question is, why did you ask that we make these maps? We went out and did that, and we gathered community support, and then you cut it anyway.”

It is true that the communities of interest component is just one of seven factors the MICRC must consider in drawing their maps, the others being the Voting Rights Act; contiguity; partisan fairness; incumbency; political boundaries; and compactness. But for someone like Chunn, who has immersed himself in drafting and analyzing maps throughout this process, the ten draft maps released by the MICRC — three Senate maps, three House maps, and five Congressional maps — don’t cut it. Alternative maps he’s analyzed, he says, are able to preserve communities of interest while maintaining a factor like partisan fairness, too. So why don’t these ones?

“The [different draft] maps are almost exactly the same,” Chunn says. “They're considering three — and I put this in quotes — ‘different’ maps for the State House. They are effectively the same. There's almost no difference between them. They definitely don't reflect different ideas.”

A voice at the table

Another major concern surrounding the release of the draft maps is the lack of majority-minority districts in Black population centers like Detroit and Flint. The draft maps split majority-Black neighborhoods in the cities and join them with majority-white suburbs, potentially hindering Black communities’ ability to elect Black representatives, a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Another alarming thing that came up in Detroit is that we went from having 17 voting districts that have a 51 percent or higher Black majority to zero,” Totten says of the draft maps. “That's disturbing when you're talking about the Blackest city in America.”

The draft maps released by the MICRC could be seen as an improvement when compared to Michigan’s gerrymandered maps of decades past, perhaps more fair and balanced from a partisan politics perspective. But at what cost? Maintaining communities of interest and adhering to the Voting Rights Act is just as important to many Michigan communities — if not more so — and especially for minorities and other underrepresented groups.

Hayg Oshagan, founder and director of New Michigan Media and associate professor of Media Arts & Studies at Wayne State University.“We want to elect people who will either listen to us or who are one of us, so that we have a voice at the table, whether it’s in Lansing with the House or Senate or in Washington D.C. with Congress,” says Hayg Oshagan, founder and director of New Michigan Media and associate professor of Media Arts & Studies at Wayne State University.

“I think that’s the key and most important aspect of redistricting — and it’s actually under-discussed, most people don’t go to this point when they’re discussing redistricting. But at the end of the day, it’s all about finding resources for communities in need. And minority communities are in need of a lot of federal and state resources and redistricting should be all about that.”
 

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.