What’s the deal with Michigan’s legislative maps? And how do we fix them?

By Kyle Kaminski

January 4, 2024

A federal court ruled that the district boundaries for 13 seats in the Michigan Legislature were illegally influenced by race. Now, state officials must redraw the maps before the next state primary election in August.

MICHIGAN—The boundary lines of 13 Detroit-area seats in the Michigan Legislature must be redrawn after a panel of federal judges found that the state’s recently reconfigured legislative district maps had illegally weakened the voting power of Black residents in southeast Michigan.

Here’s the deal:

Nearly 80% of Detroit residents are Black, but the Black voting age population in the 13 Detroit-area districts—which were last redrawn ahead of the 2022 elections—mostly range from 35% to 45% Black. A group of 19 Black Detroiters who live in the districts filed a federal lawsuit in March 2022 arguing that the maps were illegally influenced by race and had diluted their voting power, namely by pairing them with wealthy, white-dominated suburban municipalities. 

Last month, a panel of judges took their side by declaring 13 state House and Senate district maps unconstitutional and ordering them redrawn before the state primary election in August.

Exactly how and when that will be done, however, is yet to be determined. 

Which districts must be redrawn?

The 13 seats are a mixture of House and Senate districts. All of them are held by Democrats.

  • House District 1 — Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit)
  • House District 7 — Rep. Helena Scott (D-Detroit)
  • House District 8 — Rep. Mike McFall (D-Hazel Park)
  • House District 10 — House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit)
  • House District 11 — Rep. Veronica Paiz (D-Harper Woods)
  • House District 12 — Rep. Kimberly Edwards (D-Eastpointe)
  • House District 14 — Rep. Donovan McKinney (D-Detroit)
  • Senate District 1 — Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor)
  • Senate District 3 — Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit)
  • Senate District 6 — Sen. Mary Cavanagh (D-Redford Twp.)
  • Senate District 8 — Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak)
  • Senate District 10 — Sen. Paul Wojno (D-Warren)
  • Senate District 11 — Sen. Veronica Klinefelt (D-Eastpointe)

How did we get here?

Prior to 2022, Michigan’s legislative elections were held under maps enacted in 2011 by a Republican-led Legislature and governor. Those districts were drawn to give GOP candidates one of the largest advantages in the nation, according to an Associated Press analysis. 

A constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018 established the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission and stripped lawmakers of their redistricting responsibilities.

Now, a 13-member panel, randomly selected from a pool of applicants, is required to consider “partisan fairness” as one of several criteria for drawing district maps every 10 years. That process kicked in with the 2020 census and the new maps were first used in the 2022 election.

The disputed boundary lines have been widely viewed as much more politically neutral than the ones crafted by Republican lawmakers that were designed to help keep their party in power. The new, fairer maps helped give Democrats narrowly win legislative majorities in 2022.

What did the court decide?

In 2021, experts repeatedly told the commission that a certain percentage of Black voters in each district was needed to comply with federal law. Commissioners took that into account when drawing the districts, but the judges now say that was an error that needs to be remedied. 

“That proposition is without support” in precedents set by the US Supreme Court, the judges ruled. “The record here shows overwhelmingly—indeed, inescapably—that the commission drew the boundaries of plaintiffs’ districts predominantly on the basis of race. We hold that those districts were drawn in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution.”

Specifically, the judges found that the maps had improperly reduced Black voting percentages in certain districts, ultimately preventing “Black-preferred candidates” from making it through the primary election.

And under court order, members of the redistricting commission must now redraw the boundaries of the 13 legislative districts by April, well before the next statewide primary election.

What happens now?

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has said she needs about four months after the commission completes the redraw to update the qualified voter file to reflect the new district boundaries; that process must be completed by the April 23 filing deadline, the Detroit News reports.

The Redistricting Commission has asked to extend that deadline to allow for an 11-week period to redraw the maps—five weeks for the actual redraw and another 45 days for public comment. 

Lawyers for the Detroiters who are challenging the maps have suggested that the court could instead order the state to revert to the old legislative boundaries that were in place before the 2022 election or have them redrawn independently by a special master appointed by a judge.

Another brief filed earlier this week also reportedly asks the judges to order a special election for the affected Senate seats once the maps are redrawn, which could potentially push state senators onto the campaign trail this year instead of when their terms are set to expire in 2026. 

The judges are set to consider the plans at a hearing scheduled for Friday. 

Any appeal of the panel’s decision would reportedly go directly to the US Supreme Court

What could change?

The House is currently tied 54-54 among Democrats and Republicans, with two vacancies that are expected to be filled by Democrats once special elections are held in April. Democrats are in the majority in the Senate, 20-18. Depending on how the district maps are redrawn, it could have major implications for control of the Michigan Legislature.

Changing the boundary lines for the 13 districts could create a domino effect in which other, neighboring districts also need to be adjusted to accommodate the newly drawn district maps. 

Changing the maps “doesn’t need to affect the statewide partisan fairness, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t,” Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University told Bridge Michigan. He also noted: “It’s going to throw everything up in the air.”

READ MORE: Flip of Michigan Legislature highlights role of fair district maps

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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