Panel was ‘playing dice’ lowering Black voter numbers in Detroit districts, analyst says

Kalamazoo — Michigan’s redistricting commission was “playing dice” when it drew House and Senate districts that lowered the number of African American voters in majority-Black Detroit to the point where they were no longer majorities, an expert witness testified Thursday at a trial over the legality of Michigan’s legislative district boundaries.

Without districts where African Americans make up more than 50% of the voting age population, Black voters in some Detroit districts have been unable to push a preferred candidate through the primary despite federal law requiring as much in districts where there is evidence of racially polarized voting.

Sean Trende, a senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, reviewed in court several August 2022 Democratic primaries, but zeroed in on the 8th Senate District straddling Detroit and southeast Oakland County suburbs, where incumbent Sen. Mallory McMorrow of Royal Oak defeated Sen. Marshall Bullock of Detroit in a Democratic primary after the redistricting commission drew them into the same district.

The new 8th Senate District straddles the north side of Detroit and the southeast Oakland County suburbs of Berkley, Birmingham, Clawson, Ferndale, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge and Royal Oak. The district has become the focus of a federal trial over whether the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission's maps diluted the vote of Black Detroiters in violation of the Voting Rights Act and 14th Amendment.

In that case, Black primary voters broke 80-20 for Bullock and White voters broke 96-4 for McMorrow, according to Trende’s estimates. The race was a clear example of racially polarized voting that would usually require under federal law a majority-minority district; instead, it was drawn at 40% Black residents eligible to vote, Trende said.

“This looks like something out of Alabama in the 1960s,” Trende said of the 8th Senate District.

Trende, a witness called by the Detroit voters who filed the challenge to the maps, was the first witness called Thursday in a multi-day trial examining whether the House and Senate district maps drawn by citizens commissioners in December 2021 diluted the vote of Black Detroiters in violation of the Voting Rights Act and 14th Amendment.

The trial is a major test of the work of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which was established by a 2018 voter-approved constitutional amendment that stripped state lawmakers of their power to draw their own district boundaries.

Some commissioners testified Wednesday that they felt pressure from their experts to stretch the Detroit districts into White suburbs in order to lower the concentration of the Black voting age population in majority-Black districts and undo “packing” done in past redistricting processes.

More:‘100% about race’: Trial examines legislative maps’ impact on Black Detroit voters

Two of the key gerrymandering techniques the Voting Rights Act protects against are referred to as “cracking” and “packing.” Packing occurs when map drawers pack a certain population into as few districts as possible in order to minimize the number of seats they can win and, as a result, their influence in the state House and Senate. Cracking occurs when map drawers break apart a certain demographic in order to dilute their influence among several districts.

Other commissioners said they didn’t feel the same pressure and disagreed with descriptions that indicated race was a predominant factor in drawing the maps.

But Trende on Thursday said race did seem to be a predominant factor in the districts. To test that theory, Trende said, he used a computer software to generate 50,000 Metro Detroit districts with the primary guidelines being compactness, contiguity and keeping county and municipal lines in tact. Race was left out of any of the guiding criteria for the models.

When those 50,000 models were charted against the maps produced by the commission, there were large differences that could only be attributed to race-based guidelines.

“These bizarrely-shaped districts can only really be accounted for by race,” he said.

The end result, Trende said, could be that Black representation decreases further in the House and Senate, especially as incumbent Black Detroit lawmakers leave the chambers.

“The commission was playing dice with Black voters’ ability to elect their candidates of choice by drawing these districts down to 40%,” Trende said.

Several Black Metro Detroit voters in March 2022 filed a federal lawsuit arguing that 10 Michigan House districts in Metro Detroit diluted the voice of Black voters at the ballot box in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

Trende is expected to resume his testimony Thursday afternoon.

In response to the testimony about the 8th Senate District, McMorrow said Thursday the district offered one of the starkest changes in the new maps in part because it pitted two incumbents against each other and the divide in votes could also be attributed to McMorrow and Bullock’s constituencies simply voting for the person they knew.

Nonetheless, McMorrow acknowledged there’s been a history of racial division between Detroit and Oakland County that’s eased somewhat since the days of longtime Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a Republican and longtime Detroit antagonist who died in August 2019.

“I understood it was my responsibility to build trust,” McMorrow told The Detroit News. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.”

The Michigan Legislature typically has redrawn its districts every 10 years by allowing the party in power to dictate those boundaries; but, in 2018, voters approved a new system in which a group of 13 randomly selected citizens would lead the process. Michigan’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission was comprised of four Republicans, four Democrats and five nonpartisan members.

The commission finalized its maps in December 2021. The adopted maps reduced the number of majority-Black districts from 11 to seven in the House and from two to zero in the Senate. Where some of the previous Detroit area maps contained more than 90% of the Black voting age population, the new maps diluted those concentrations to 35%-55%. 

In March 2022, several Black Metro Detroit residents filed suit in federal court. They argued that 10 state House districts and seven Senate districts in the Detroit area diluted the voice of Black voters in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution. The suit was filed against Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and the 13 members of the commission.

In August, federal judges Raymond Kethledge, Paul Maloney and Janet Neff ruled the claims against seven House districts and six Senate districts could proceed to trial to discern whether the redistricting commission “went too far in lowering Black voter percentages in Detroit-area districts.”

Of the 13 districts going to trial, six were won by Black lawmakers in November 2022; four of those six are from Detroit.

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