‘Picasso’ of gerrymandering selected to draw new districts
Detroit Free Press
March 5, 2021
Michigan’s first-ever, independent redistricting commission has made a rather interesting selection for the political consulting firm to draw the state’s new congressional and legislative districts — one led by a man once satirically referred to as the Picasso of gerrymandering.
On Thursday, eight of the 13 randomly selected Michigan voters serving on the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission voted to hire Virginia-based Election Data Services as its line-drawing firm. The decision followed a contentious debate among the commissioners regarding the company’s reputation.
A 2013 segment on “The Daily Show” about gerrymandering — the manipulation of voting district boundaries to achieve a desired election outcome — described Election Data Services President Kimball Brace as the man behind some of the country’s most gerrymandered districts. The segment likened his work to Picasso’s paintings.
Commissioners weighed whether Election Data Services was the right choice for a public body set up to end partisan redistricting in Michigan. But even commissioners who expressed reservations said they were impressed by the company’s offerings.
In its proposal to the commission, Election Data Services said it is sometimes viewed with Democratic leanings. The Michigan team it has assembled for the commission would include John Morgan, the president of Applied Research Coordinates, “the top Republican map drawing firm,” the proposal states.
If the company accepts the commission’s offer, it will work for an independent group that exists because Michiganders approved a constitutional amendment placed on the ballot in 2018 by an organization called Voters Not Politicians.
The company has in place what it says is a “tripartisan” team of Democrats, Republicans and independents to help Michigan’s commission produce a fair set of maps that won’t benefit one party over the other.
But the company won’t be able to start drawing lines based on the 2020 census data for a while. The U.S. Census Bureau recently announced that it will deliver redistricting data to the states by Sept. 30, an unprecedented six-month delay that could force the commission to blow past the Sept. 17 deadline for proposing redistricting plans before adopting final maps on Nov. 1 as required by Michigan’s Constitution.
On Friday, the commission unanimously decided it would ask the Michigan Supreme Court for an extension of the deadline for adopting the new maps in tandem with the Secretary of State’s Office.
Michigan Bureau of Elections director Jonathan Brater told the commission Friday that the delay could impact the work of the bureau and clerks “to turn those maps into ballots.” This process, Brater said, takes about six months and entails translating the new districts into about 5,000 unique ballots for more than 8 million voters. The commission has not yet selected a date for its preferred deadline for adopting new congressional and legislative district maps.
Election Data Services is no stranger to redistricting in Michigan. The company worked with the Michigan Democratic Party and Democratic lawmakers during the 1981 redistricting cycle and the Michigan Legislature during the 1991 cycle, according to its proposal to the commission. And Morgan worked with the state’s Republican Party in 1991 on congressional district plans, according to the company’s bid.
Rhonda Lange, a 48-year-old Republican commissioner from Reed City, said she didn’t share the concerns raised to the commission in emails from the public about the company’s past work.
“It’s not really the map drawers that did the gerrymandering,” she said. “They were hired to do a service by a particular group and that’s what they did.”
Rebecca Szetela, a 47-year-old independent commissioner from Canton, didn’t agree.
“To me that’s the Nuremberg defense, ‘I was just following orders when I gunned down 500 people,'” she said.
She expressed concerns that the company may not be able to draw Michigan’s new districts in a neutral manner, pointing to “The Daily Show” segment in which Brace discussed how Illinois’ 4th Congressional District was drawn in 1991. Morgan worked with Illinois state senators during that year’s redistricting cycle, according to the Election Data Services proposal. In a 2002 article titled “How to rig an election,” The Economist pointed to the district to claim that “the champion gerrymandering comes from Illinois.”
The u-shaped district combined “the Puerto Rican part of the northern part of Chicago with the Mexican part in the southern part of Chicago,” Brace said. “The problem is that you have a whole African-American community in the middle, you have to go out and around it.”
Brace is “very, very good at doing what people writing the paycheck want him to do,” Szetela said. “If the Republicans come in and say, ‘I want you to pack and crack all the African Americans into this one district so they get one district and we get the other 99% of them,’ he’s going to do that. But I have a problem with that, because that’s not what we’re here to do.”
Responding to Szetela’s concerns, Dustin Witjes, a 31-year-old Democratic commissioner from Ypsilanti said, “They’re going to listen to us and how we want to do it because we are providing them the paycheck.”
Witjes was the only Democratic commissioner who joined all four Republicans on the commission and two of the five independent members in voting for Election Data Services.
The commissioners chose Election Data Services over HaystaqDNA, a Washington, D.C.-based company that drew the maps for Arizona and California’s independent citizens redistricting commissions.
Commissioners who favored Election Data Services said they liked that the company would allow the commissioners to draw their own maps and that an online comment tool would allow the public to provide input on them.
Members of the commission were also impressed by the company’s offer to provide expertise on racial voting patterns. The racial voting analysis that would be provided by Lisa Handley, an expert in redistricting and voting rights, wasn’t included in the company’s original proposal but the commission made its offer contingent upon including Handley on the team.
Among the top objectives for the new maps is keeping communities that share political interests – but not necessarily political parties – together. Advocates of the new redistricting process say the criteria will help correct gerrymandered districts that split up communities for partisan gain. The commission will rely on input from communities across the state to draw the new maps.
The commissioners haven’t decided where they will hold public hearings, but members of the public urged the commission to add more hearings in Detroit and other urban areas to its proposed public hearing schedule during Friday’s meeting.
The selection of hearing locations should be based on population density and ensure communities of color are given ample opportunity to provide input to the commission, several commenters said. The commission has also heard from residents of rural communities asking the commission to add more locations in less densely populated parts of the state to ensure their concerns also are considered.
Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Make a tax-deductible contribution to support her work at bit.ly/freepRFA. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-296-5743 for comments or to suggest a fact-check. Follow her on Twitter @clarajanehen