Lawyers for Michigan’s redistricting commission used a controversial closed-door meeting to label legal interpretations of federal voting requirements that urge drawing majority-minority districts inaccurate and misleading, calling on the commission not to adjust lines based on race alone to make final changes to proposed congressional and state legislative districts.
“We have become concerned that there is so much misinformation out there we wanted to have an opportunity to set the record straight in a sense,” Bruce Adelson, the commission’s voting rights lawyer, said during the private meeting of interpretations of the Voting Rights Act presented to the commission.
The release of the recording of the Oct. 27 closed-door session followed a Michigan Supreme Court decision Monday ordering its disclosure in response to a lawsuit brought by the Detroit Free Press and other media organizations against the commission, demanding greater transparency from the group.
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As it approached the final round of adjustments to its maps, Adelson warned the commissioners not to make changes based on race alone. “Please don’t use phrases about adding Black people, subtracting Black people, adding white people, subtracting white people,” he said. When such phrases are used, it “gives people the ammunition that they’re looking for” to sue the commission alleging that they drew districts using race as the predominant factor, Adelson said.
The threat of lawsuits played a large role in the commission’s refusal to release the memos and the recording. However, a 4-3 majority of the state’s high court argued the commission’s ability to prepare for legal action did not outweigh its constitutional responsibility to an open and transparent process.
The commission’s closed-door session followed a series of public hearings during which the group heard concerns that its draft maps would illegally disenfranchise Black voters. While the private discussion seemed to suggest that the commission was receiving new legal advice, much of the conversation rehashed guidance provided to the commission in its open meeting discussions on how to comply with the Voting Rights Act — the federal law that prohibits racially discriminatory districts that deny minority voters an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates.
Adelson repeated to the commission during the closed-door session that the group is not required to draw majority-minority districts and that courts have ruled against redistricting authorities that have set racial targets or placed more minority voters in a district than needed to protect their voting rights.
But during the closed-door session, Adelson specifically called out the Michigan AFL-CIO and Michigan Department of Civil Rights — critics of the commission’s approach to drawing minority voters into new voting districts — for their interpretations of the Voting Rights Act.
For instance, the Michigan AFL-CIO’s Fair Maps Project — like the state’s civil rights department — has stated that the Voting Rights Act has been interpreted to require preserving majority-minority districts currently in place. Adelson told the commission during the closed-door meeting that the claim is “legally and factually incorrect.”
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Lisa Handley, a political scientist hired by the commission, analyzed racial voting patterns in Michigan using statewide election data from the past decade and found that the commission did not need to draw majority-Black districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
A district home to a 35%-40% Black voting age population could ensure Black voters have an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates in Genesee, Oakland, Saginaw and Wayne counties, Handley found. Adelson told the commission to trust that analysis and noted that critics of the commission have not undertaken a similar analysis of racial voting patterns that would contradict Handley’s findings.
Adelson applauded the commission’s work drawing new districts in Detroit. Its earlier draft maps eliminated majority-minority districts currently in place, including those home to a Black voting age population above 90%.
“You spent a lot of time and hard work unpacking a city that frankly has been packed for decades,” Adelson said, referring to Detroit districts he said gerrymandered minority voters by concentrating them in a handful of districts and removing their influence from surrounding areas. “That took a lot of work and we applaud that. We think it definitely is the right track. It expands minority vote opportunities, it expands opportunities for the Black community in Detroit to expand its influence.”
Some commissioners raised concerns during the meeting about the discussion.
“I’m getting a little uncomfortable because it sounds like we’re being empowered to not change what we’ve done,” said Brittni Kellom, a Democratic commissioner. “The Detroit area is jacked up and we need to change it.”
Adelson advised the commission that a lot of the comments the group heard focused on reuniting communities that the commission broke up in its earlier draft maps. He told the commissioners that adjustments to the maps using community-based feedback may have the result of increasing the share of minority voters in the districts. That would not get the commission into legal trouble so long as the adjustments focused on complying with the requirement to draw lines that reflect communities rather than shifting its approach to the Voting Rights Act, Adelson said.
He later repeated that guidance in an open meeting of the commission when he indicated his support for adjustments the commission made to its earlier state House draft maps that would include a Black voting age population as high as 55%.
Adelson said during the early November mapping session that the commission’s changes seemed to reflect feedback it heard to restitch neighborhoods and communities it previously broke apart rather than achieve some racial target that would concentrate minority voters in a district in ways that would limit their influence in surrounding districts.
Proposed congressional maps under consideration would eliminate the two majority-Black districts that currently run through Detroit. All but one proposed state Senate map would leave Detroit without a single majority-Black district and proposed state House maps propose fewer majority-Black districts than the number currently in place.
The commission will meet the last week in December to adopt congressional and state legislative districts for the next decade.
The documents below were released with the audio recording.
One person, one vote and acceptable population deviations, June 24, 2021
Legal considerations and discussion of justifications re: criteria, Oct. 7, 2021
Voting Rights Act, Oct. 14, 2021
The history of discrimination in the state of Michigan and its influence on voting, Oct. 26, 2021
Memorandum regarding renumbering of electoral districts, November 3, 2021
Redistricting criteria, Nov. 4, 2021