The Michigan Wild Card

Michigan Congressional Districts

By Jim Ellis

July 16, 2021 — For the third consecutive census, the Wolverine State of Michigan loses a congressional seat but this time it is more difficult to determine how the new map will be drawn and which of the state’s 14 US House members, comprised of seven Democrats and seven Republicans, will be the odd member out.

The big change is that for the first time a citizens’ commission, and not the state legislature, will draw the map. The 13-member commission has been conducting briefings to organizations around the state since April 3 and has public input meetings scheduled with those that began July 8 through Aug. 26.

What places Michigan in a wild card situation, however, won’t become clear until the US Census Bureau sends the state its individual tract data that will arrive on or around Aug. 15. At that point, the key question will be answered as to just how many people the city of Detroit has lost. This will be the critical factor in determining how the new congressional map is constructed.

Like every state, Michigan is bordered on all sides meaning the members with districts on the edge are typically in better defined position than those residing in the geographic middle. In this state’s case, the Great Lakes surround the split land masses on the north, east, and west, with Canada lying to its north and east, and Indiana and Ohio to the south.

Looking at the available public population data that only is current through July 1 of 2019, all current 14 districts must gain residents, hence the state losing a CD, with three most significantly holding the fewest people. Those three are the two Detroit seats, Districts 13 (Rep. Rashida Tlaib-D) and 14 (Rep. Brenda Lawrence-D), and the Flint-anchored seat, District 5 (Rep. Dan Kildee-D). All three are likely to need an influx of more than 100,000 people apiece.

The two Detroit districts are majority minority, meaning the Commission will likely run into major Voting Rights Act legal trouble if one of those seats is collapsed despite the lack of population.

To further complicate matters, the city sits in Michigan’s far southeastern corner with Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, and Canada as its east-southeast border. Therefore, the district lines will predominantly move to the north and west. Since Democratic members hold all of the surrounding seats in the Detroit metro area, a severe population loss in the final year, the true numbers of which we will find next month in the census tract data release, could mean two of the metro Democrats will be paired into one seat.

Remembering that all of the remaining districts will need to gain significant population, the Detroit metro area is further compressed because the western and northern Republican districts will also be moving toward the middle and south in order to gain the required number of residents, which will likely be in the 768,000 range.

The other Democratic member who is in a difficult position is Rep. Kildee. The city of Flint, largely due to the drinking water contamination catastrophe discovered in 2014, has lost thousands of people. Kildee’s 5th District will also need more than 100,000 new residents. His current district begins in Flint, and then stretches north to encompass the city of Saginaw before meandering through Bay City and around Lake Huron.

Moving the 5th south would bring the seat into the Detroit metro area, which, as outlined above needs many more residents to fill its own seats, or into the Republican districts to the west.

It is unlikely they can take the 5th to the east because the 10th District of freshman Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Bruce) that borders the Kildee district and houses the state’s “thumb” also needs an influx of population and must come west. Therefore, Rep. Kildee could become the odd man out, though the city of Flint will still be large enough to be an anchor city in a very different, and likely much more Republican, district.

If the Detroit numbers are higher than expected, then the loss could come on the Republican side. The most vulnerable Republican is the man in the middle of the lower peninsula land mass, Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland).

With Rep. Jack Bergman’s (R-Watersmeet) northern district being forced south and Rep. Kildee likely having to come west, and Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Holland) forced to the east, Rep. Moolenaar is a strong candidate to be paired with another member in a new district where he will have much less current population than his eventual opponent. This is because it is probable that his rural 4th District without a major population anchor will be split in several directions.

The Aug. 15 census tract release will provide us clues as to how the new Michigan map will eventually be drawn, but it is clear that this state will provide one of the more interesting 2021 redistricting stories. We can count on lawsuits being filed here regardless of how this complicated map is eventually crafted.

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