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Michigan's redistricting commission faces criticism from across the political spectrum

Members of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) listen during a meeting at the Michigan State University Union on Oct. 29, 2021. (Aldair Zepeda/WWMT){p}{/p}
Members of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) listen during a meeting at the Michigan State University Union on Oct. 29, 2021. (Aldair Zepeda/WWMT)

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The group in charge of redrawing Michigan's political boundaries for the next decades is facing criticism from both sides of the aisle this week after commission members met in private, in what some legal and political experts say is a violation of the constitutional amendment creating the group.

On Wednesday, the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission decided to move into a closed session with lawyers to address legal memos they had about the Voting Rights Act. The commission has received criticism for what some civil rights advocates say are potential violations of civil rights laws in current draft maps.

The constitutional amendment that created the commission states that the commission must conduct "all of its business at open meetings."

Commission leaders and the commission's general counsel say the closed-door session was necessary, met all Open Meetings Act requirements, and was covered under attorney-client privilege. General counsel Julianne Pastula said Wednesday there were no pending lawsuits against the commission that she was aware of.

“Certainly in a process that’s supposed to be open and transparent, the optics aren’t good,” said Peter Wielhouwer, associate professor of political science at Western Michigan University.

On Friday, the commission's communications and outreach director, Edward Woods III, reiterated the meeting was protected under attorney-client privilege.

"There was no business being conducted, there was no strategy being done, no deliberations took place, it was just attorney-client communications,” he said.

When asked if the commission had any regrets about going into a closed session, Woods said "absolutely not."

“There can’t be any regrets when you’re following – when you’re doing what you say you’re gonna do in an open and transparent manner,” he said.

The same day as the closed session, the commission went in to a lockdown after getting a death threat over email. The Michigan State University Police Department and the FBI have since said, after conducting interviews, they believe the person who made the threat will not follow through with it.

During Thursday's meeting, the commission took time to play a Michigan trivia game not directly related to the mapping process.

The commission continued to keep paper over the door's windows in the Michigan State University's Union through most of the day on Friday, a move Woods says was taken as a precaution after the death threat. The commission also moved to a smaller room in the Union as they focused on state Senate districts and continuing to absorb feedback given at public comment sessions around the state this week and the one before.

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission is the first redistricting procedure of its kind in Michigan, which had previously had maps drawn by lawmakers behind closed doors. The commission was approved by Michigan voters in November 2018.

Wednesday's closed session, in addition to concerns about partisan fairness and civil rights standards, has left some political experts questioning how prepared the commission is to redraw Michigan and make decisions that will last for the next decade.

“This is an extraordinarily complex process and I think that the people who maybe signed up to be on this did not know exactly what they were getting into, in terms of the level of complication and the enormous political and social pressure that they would be under in taking on such an important and high-level task,” Wielhouwer said.

Woods says the commission remains focused on doing what is in the best interest of Michigan.

"Is it an easy task, Rachel? No. Is it a tough task? Yes. Is it demanding? Absolutely," he said. "But it’s the purest form of civics that you’ll ever see in Michigan, where you see government for the people, by the people taking place in an open and transparent manner for anyone to see, anyone to go back on."

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