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Detroit lawmakers ask top Michigan court to block new voting maps

State legislators claim new congressional and legislative election maps dilute the power of Black voters in Detroit by using boundaries that bleed into suburban communities.

LANSING, Mich. (CN) — A group of Detroit lawmakers filed a complaint with the Michigan Supreme Court late Monday seeking to block the implementation of newly drawn congressional and legislative districts they contend weaken the voting power of Black residents.

The lawsuit comes just days after the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission finalized U.S. House of Representatives and Michigan Legislature maps to take effect in 2022. Those new boundaries are intended to last a decade, until the next census.  

“Unfortunately, the problem lies in the largest African American majority city in the nation has received the very short end of the stick,” filing attorney Nabih Ayad told the Detroit News. “The new redistricting map lines have unfairly discriminated against the Ccty of Detroit, its residents and its elected officials.”

The suit alleges violations of the federal Voting Rights Act and the Michigan Constitution, noting the state's high court already ruled against the commission over an Open Meetings Act violation claim. The state lawmakers say the hope of fair districts has been “shattered” by the revelation of the new maps.

“Should the plans be adopted, it would completely eliminate the two majority-minority (Black) districts that currently run through Detroit. Instead, those districts would be apportioned into eight new districts comprised of eight small sections of Detroit, each paired with a large section of a Detroit suburb,” the lawsuit states. "Each of the new eight districts would be majority-white."

The complaint was filed by state Representatives Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods; Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit; Helena Scott, D-Detroit; Stephanie Young, D-Detroit, and Mary Cavanagh, D-Redford Township. Democratic state Senator Betty Jean Alexander of Detroit is also listed as a plaintiff.  

"I felt that it was imperative that we file a lawsuit immediately," Yancey told the Detroit Free Press. She told the newspaper she will not be running for reelection due to term limits but wants to support those running in 2022 to represent Detroiters. 

The Detroit lawmakers are concerned that Black candidates from the city would not fare as well in the newly drawn districts and say the commission failed to closely examine state legislative primary elections to better understand racial voting patterns. 

The lawsuit alleges that the new congressional and state Senate maps include zero majority-Black wards. Under the old maps, there were two such congressional districts and five for the state Senate. It also alleges that the state House will only have two majority-Black districts, down from 12.

Commissioners have countered that Black voters can still elect their candidates of choice without comprising at least half of a district's electorate.

The 13-member commission and its lawyers have also said federal law does not require majority-minority districts.

"As shared previously, we believe in the advice of our Voting Rights Act legal counsel that we comply with the Voting Rights Act," commission spokesperson Edwards Woods III told the Associated Press.

The voter-created commission was established to “lead Michigan's redistricting process to assure Michigan's congressional, state Senate, and state House district lines are drawn fairly in a citizen-led, transparent process, meeting Constitutional mandates,” according to the mission statement on its website.

The process had previously been handled by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Lisa Handley, a consultant hired to advise the commission, compiled reports on racial bloc data during the map drawing process.

She submitted a report to the panel that found candidates preferred by Black voters can win general elections even if the population of that district is not 50% African American. But she also noted a lack of data to discern how Black candidates may be affected by white voters in primaries, which could be a deciding factor.

If successful, the lawsuit would force the commission to revise the maps. A request for comment from the commission was not returned by press time.

Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, said she does not want to see the diversity of the Legislature diminished.

"The MDP is committed to fighting to ensure fair representation for all Michiganders including giving Black and Brown voters the ability to elect their candidate of choice in a general election," she said in a statement.

Former state Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, now a Detroit School Board member, said the city "deserves to have Black leaders."

"We want to make sure that our children have an opportunity to see themselves in the Legislature and for people that will fight for them in our classrooms, in our schools to advocate for policies," she told the AP.

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