U-M study aims to clarify 'communities of interest' as Michigan prepares for legislative redistricting

September 14, 2020

An Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will redraw state and federal legislative districts in Michigan in 2021 with a mandate: The districts must reflect the state's diverse population and communities of interest.

The requirement is one of the highest priorities according to a state constitution amendment passed in 2018, yet the definition of communities of interest hasn't been clearly delineated in Michigan or other states that have launched redistricting efforts. A study conducted by the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) at the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy aims to define what constitutes communities of interest and how they can factor into the process. 

Using an independent citizens redistricting commission instead of the state legislature was a change approved by Michigan voters to end partisan gerrymandering. The 13-member commission, which was randomly drawn from more than 9,000 applicants, will create new districts based on criteria that also include basic provisions like equal numbers of constituents in each district, compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act and a requirement that they be geographically contiguous.

The study, part of the larger Michigan Redistricting Project at CLOSUP, was conducted in conjunction with the Michigan Department of State. MDOS serves as the administrator of the new commission process and the secretary without a vote of the commission once formed. The commission will be convened for the first time Sept. 17-18.

To elaborate on the concept of communities of interest, the report suggests it has the following general characteristics:

  • Common economic, ethnic, cultural or other bonds
  • A contiguous area on a map
  • Linkage to public policy issues of common interest 
  • It does not promote a particular political party, candidate or jurisdiction

The study was prepared during the 2019-20 school year by a team of six Master of Public Policy students under the direction of Ford School Professor Emeritus John Chamberlin. He noted that since the concept is new to the state, an extraordinary effort will be required to inform the public about communities of interest and how Michigan residents can advocate for theirs to be included.

"There's not going to be a big line of volunteers ready to tell you their story if they don't know what a community of interest is, or whether they are one," Chamberlain said. "So outreach is an important part of figuring out how to implement successfully the redistricting process."

The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is mandated to hold a minimum of 10 public hearings around the state before drawing its first maps, and then an additional five once the preliminary proposals have been made. The study suggests more meetings may be necessary, including making accommodation for alternatives to in-person sessions as public health constraints may require during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The 2020 Michigan Public Policy Survey, which is administered by CLOSUP and reached 1,342 local jurisdictions in the state, found a significant lack of understanding of the independent commission and the concept of communities of interest among Michigan's local government leaders. 

The study calls for a public information effort that may require additional funding, involvement from local public libraries, colleges and universities, and active courting on social media and in print and broadcast media, which would encourage submissions to and attendance at the commission's public hearings. 

The report notes that well-financed communities of interest, like business districts or industry associations, will likely be more organized than other types of groups, and maintaining a balance will be important. The program must "find ways to ensure that COIs that might otherwise remain 'invisible' end up participating in the process," it states. 

Communities of interest can be made up of ethnic, religious or immigrant communities, tourism areas, media markets, outdoor recreation or natural resource areas, among others.

"Let's get groups of citizens who have a stake in what happens in the legislature and let's listen to them about what matters to them," Chamberlin said. "And let's as much as possible try to build districts that will serve those communities well. That's just a fundamental difference from the way redistricting happened before."

Tom Ivacko, executive director of CLOSUP, says he believes the redistricting commission will prove to be one of the most consequential policy developments in Michigan in decades.

"Getting the COI definition and process right is a key component. We are happy that the Ford School and CLOSUP could be involved in this historic process," he said. 

According to Tracy Wimmer, MDOS director of media relations, the report provides a valuable overview and important insights on a range of issues about communities of interest. That includes how other states have handled the concept in their redistricting efforts.

"We're grateful to the CLOSUP team for their important contributions," she said. 

The report will be among the materials given to the redistricting commission at its inaugural convening Sept. 17-18. 

"This is a new theory of representation, which is what the amendment was trying to achieve," Chamberlin said. "It is unique and interesting and relevant for redistricting commissions around the country, as everybody will be redistricting in 2021, so it has national implications."

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