How underrepresented communities have a chance to overcome gerrymandering

From 1999 to 2002, Belda Garza served in the Michigan House of Representatives, representing what was then the state’s 8th district. At the turn of the century, Michigan’s 8th district contained much of Southwest Detroit, an area of the city with a substantial Latinx population that continues to thrive there to this day. Garza was the first — and remains the only — Latinx immigrant elected to represent a part of the state that is largely made up of people just like her.

Garza’s district was redrawn in 2010, as the state’s districts are every ten years, but rather than fine-tune a district that finally had a chance to elect a representative that residents felt represented them, Southwest Detroit was split into several districts, diluting the voting power of the state’s Latinx population.

“We never had another Latinx representative again — ever,” says Oscar Castañeda, statewide Latino organizing coordinator for the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, or DHDC.
A map from Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation. The red perimeter outlines a Community of Interest while each color inside is a current district, dividing the Latino population into three districts.

That all could change. A 2018 ballot initiative, Michigan Proposal 2, was passed by Michigan voters, with 61 percent of voting Michiganders electing to approve the formation of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (ICRC). In previous decades, the state’s voting districts were drawn by our politicians, using the new decade’s census data to draw our political maps. Criticisms of gerrymandering and the cracking of cohesive districts, like what happened in Southwest Detroit, were not unfounded.

Proposal 2 hopes to change that, forming a 13-member bipartisan redistricting committee, the ICRC, that aims to draw the next decade’s political boundaries in a more fair and representative manner. Public input is key to the process, with mapping tools allowing Michigan residents and organizations the opportunity to draw their own districts and submit them for consideration and comment.

As part of the new law, the ICRC must take seven factors into account when deciding on the final maps. They include federal requirements such as Voting Rights Act; contiguity; communities of interest; partisan fairness; incumbency; political boundaries; and compactness.

It’s the communities of interest factor that is of the utmost importance to organizations like the Michigan Nonprofit Association, which has been involved in changing the ways in which Michigan draws its political districts since before Proposal 2 was passed.

Communities of Interest

According to the new law, communities of interest “may include, but shall not be limited to, populations that share cultural or historical characteristics or economic interests. Communities of interest do not include relationships with political parties, incumbents, or political candidates.” It’s the type of distinction that recognizes the importance of communities like Southwest Detroit and gives them the opportunity to unite their district once again.

The Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) has taken the idea of communities of interest and run with it, announcing a new initiative in February 2021 that created a coalition of nonprofit organizations in population centers like Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids, offering their support to nonprofits that represent communities that have been historically underrepresented in the political process.
 
“We are concerned with populations that have been historically underrepresented and have, traditionally, not been brought into these kinds of processes. Being locked out of these kinds of processes makes it really difficult for those types of communities to be fairly represented,” says Joan Gustafson, external affairs officer for MNA. Joan Gustafson, external affairs officer for Michigan Nonprofit Association

“When I talk about historically underrepresented populations, I'm talking about people of color, immigrant communities, low-income communities. That inequity of them not being involved in the redistricting process leads to inequities of political power, government funding, and representation.”

Throughout the year, MNA has worked with a coalition of 19 Michigan nonprofits, providing them the training and resources necessary to draw and submit political districts that they feel best represents them and their own communities. It’s a varied group, including the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, the Disability Network of Oakland & Macomb, LGBT Detroit, and more than a dozen others.

The phrase ‘communities of interest’ can be subjective, but that opens the door for the nonprofits MNA has organized to each communicate who they are and what it is that’s especially important to them.

“Our focus is on the communities of interest factor, educating communities so that they can take a look at how they define themselves, what matters to them,” Gustafson says. “Where do they see their community? What are the boundaries of their community? Are there elected officials representing them in the way that they want to be represented? Do those officials understand their challenges? Do they understand their concerns?”

Building blocks

It’s a challenging process, but a challenge worth meeting.

Bob Chunn is president and co-founder of RelA2ve, an Ann Arbor-based technology firm that has partnered with MNA to provide their nonprofit coalition with NextVote. The NextVote technology allows the nonprofits to draw their own maps and submit them for public comment in the online portal.

“If you understand that these precincts are the building blocks of political districts, then they are like Legos; each Lego contains the same number of people, about 2,000 people. You can build Lego shapes, but when you have a community of interest, it’s like an unbreakable collection of Legos,” Chunn says.

“So now the map is giving you a shape that’s different and you have to use your other Legos to work around it and still build the wall. But you have to make the conscious decision to break that selection of Legos up so that it's easier to draw your district. And then you’re going to have to give rationale for that as well.”

Another component of the process is that rationale, or narrative — as it’s referred to here. When submitting a map, communities of interest also submit a narrative, explaining who belongs to the community and why it’s important that they’re represented together as one district.

That’s easier said than done. But MNA and RelA2ve have come together to make the process as accessible as they can.
Loida Topia from MNA instructing community members on how to use the map portal at a town hall meeting hosted by APIA Vote-MI, July 07, 2021
The Asian & Pacific Islander American Vote-Michigan (APIAVote-MI) organization, a member of the MNA coalition, represents dozens of countries, languages, and cultures, communities spread out in different areas throughout the state. APIAVote-MI has submitted multiple maps, advocating for the different groups that they support, in the different areas of the state in which they reside. Town halls organized by the organization have been held in Hamtramck, various suburbs of Detroit, the Grand Rapids area, and elsewhere.

Rebeka Islam, executive director of APIAVote-MI, credits MNA and RelA2ve with helping the nonprofit coalition navigate the redistricting process. Rebeka Islam, executive director of APIAVote-MI

“With MNA and RelA2ve, we’ve literally been working hand-in-hand. With NextVote, they’ve helped us to submit our communities of interest map, they’ve helped us to create our communities of interest narrative,” Islam says.

“As an everyday citizen, we don’t always really know what we’re looking at when we look at one of these maps — what it means, how many seats there are, what the population looks like. NextVote has been able to analyze that and give us those demographics, what it all means. It really helps us define our communities of interest and express that in our data.”

With the nonprofit coalition acting on behalf of their communities and the experts providing the proper set of tools and knowledge, the new redistricting process is beginning a new set of conversations that should have been had a long time ago. And the people are responding, Islam says.

“It’s a historic moment for Michigan residents, the first time ever for the opportunity to sit in on the process of drawing new districts and our voting lines,” she says. “It's almost overwhelming to see how the community responds when you give them the proper tools to be engaged in our process.

“This is the first time that redistricting is being led by independent citizens and community members are pouring in from everywhere to be a part of this. And I think that's phenomenal.”
 
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