Michigan’s Independent Redistricting Commission: A model for other states
The short answer is that though the commission wasn’t perfect, it did a lot right. It was generally open and transparent, avoided the pitfalls and gridlock that marred other commissions, and produced a fair map that better represents Michigan’s voters.
To fully appreciate the commission’s work, it’s important to consider how redistricting commissions have impacted elections in other states. States that have relied on commissions rather than the legislature often see more competitive congressional elections. Politicians have a direct, personal incentive to draw maps with gerrymandered districts that make it virtually impossible for one party to win. Commissioners, on the other hand, operate under a different set of incentives, and as a result they are less likely to engage in partisan gerrymandering.
Commissions also create a healthier, more robust political environment by attracting more and better candidates. When maps are not drawn to artificially induce certain outcomes, candidates other than incumbents may have a better shot at winning and are thus more likely to run.
Redistricting commissions also can help improve citizens’ attitudes towards elections and government at a time when people are dissatisfied with how districts are drawn. Commissions can reverse this trend and confer greater legitimacy to the mapmaking process. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the commission can help more voters feel like their voice is heard and that their vote matters. This is increasingly important as trust in government remains low.
These factors appear to ring true in Michigan as well. According to analysts, only two of the 14 previous congressional districts—drawn by the state legislature—were highly competitive. In contrast, the commission drew three highly competitive seats this time around, despite the state losing a seat in Congress due to reapportionment. Compared to the 2012 cycle (the last time maps were redrawn), Michigan’s upcoming primaries have fewer uncontested options, and more candidates are seeking office overall. This includes about a dozen challengers who have previously held some other elected office.
First and foremost, the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission was truly independent of the legislature. Other states employed commissions that were not entirely independent as they were appointed or even staffed by the state legislature or merely served an advisory role. This was not the case in Michigan, which allowed the commissioners to do their work free from partisan pressures.
Michigan also employed an open and transparent process. The commission held public meetings to inform residents and receive feedback in addition to publishing proposed plans, meeting materials and other information online for public consumption. In so doing, the commission brought the public into the line-drawing process in a manner designed to increase trust.
The commission design also ensured fairness in the process. The commission was open to all registered voters and the candidates were then randomly selected to form the 13-member commission. Of the 13 members, four identify as Democrats, four identify as Republican and five do not affiliate with a party. Unlike in other commissions where partisan gridlock hampered the outcome, this model ensured a variety of perspectives were heard while also setting the stage for compromise and consensus.
That said, the commission wasn’t without some controversy. Despite the constitutional requirement to hold all meetings in public, the Michigan Supreme Court had to step in to order the release of records from a closed door meeting held in October 2021. The need for Supreme Court oversight on matters of transparency jeopardized the reputation of the commission, something future commissions would be wise to avoid.
As for the merits of the final maps themselves, one analysis contends that the map could have been drawn in a manner even more reflective of county and precinct boundaries. Ensuring that counties and precincts are kept in the same districts is important to avoid confusion, which is why it’s encouraged under state law. However, these county and precinct splits may be an artifact of the commission’s desire to preserve communities of interest, meaning “populations that share cultural or historical characteristics or economic interests.” These two criteria may be at odds with one another, as a community of interest may spill over county or city lines. Nonetheless, the commission should endeavor to abide by each of the criteria as strictly as possible and be clear about tension resolution when those criteria are in conflict.
Nevertheless, while the redistricting commission could have done a better job in some ways, it was overall a success, and Michigan is all the better for it. Michiganders should be proud of the work of their commission in 2021, and as more states look to reform their redistricting process, they should look to and build from Michigan’s example.