Reapportionment in Lansing: What is it? Why does it matter?

Dueling proposals could expand — or shrink — Ingham County Commission

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With every census, another dienniel ritual is unleashed: rewriting the political lines in Michigan.  

Every decade, census data is used to create election districts. That includes congressional districts, state Senate and House districts and local districts.

On the county level, new districts for county commissioners are drawn by the prosecuting attorney, clerk and treasurer. That means Prosecutor Carol Siemon, Clerk Barb Byrum and Treasurer Eric Schertzing are behind the wheel this year on recreating the format of the county Board of Commissioners. Chairs of the Republican and Democratic parties are also on the reapportionment committee.

Byrum is pushing a plan that will reduce the size of county commission from 14 to 11 seats. That plan, she said, will bring the county more in line with similarly sized counties in Michigan. 

Last week, the Democratic Caucus of the commission also pitched a plan in the opposite direction, increasing the commission from 14 to 15 seats. A total of four maps have been introduced for the committee’s consideration. Three of them have 15 commission seats. Only Byrum’s plan would reduce the size of the commission. The reapportionment committee isn’t required to accept any of those four recommendations and maintains final discretion to make any changes. The decision, however, must be made by Monday (Oct. 11), county officials said.

Byrum’s plan has faced criticism from some Democratic commissioners, including Mark Grebner, Grebner, who represents all of East Lansing and Michigan State University. At the caucus meeting, Grebner attacked the plan for pitting sitting commissioners against each other for reelection. He also contends that the reformatted commission would put each of the people of color who serve on the commission in jeopardy of losing their seats.

“I just don’t think a lot will get done if commissioners are busy campaigning against each other,” Grebner explained in a phone interview this week. “That seems counterproductive.”

Grebner said the party in power — which has long been the Democrats — usually refrains from creating mayhem by pitting sitting elected officials against each other. But Byrum’s proposal, he said, would put longtime Commissioner Vic Celentino up against Commissioner Derrell Slaughter. It would also shift the boundary of that seat to the east, absorbing some of East Lansing and pitting Chairman Bryan Crenshaw against newcomer Commissioner Bob Peña.

“I don’t think either one of them would understand the needs of East Lansing,” Grebner said.

Byrum said the current district configuration has commissioners each representing 20,350 people based on the 2020 census — up from 20,063 in 2010. A move to 11 commission seats would mean commissioners would be elected to represent 25,900 people. 

Her proposed changes reflect an increase in population in the county, although most of that increase was in Meridian Township, while Lansing’s population shrunk. The change would proportionately increase representation from Meridian Township to two seats, while reducing seats in Lansing through consolidation of all of south Lansing into a single commission seat.

The increased size of the districts is also a concern for Grebner, a longtime political consultant who makes his living mining voter lists to create targeted political campaign activity locally. He said larger districts would make it more difficult for in-person political campaigns — meaning that candidates would be forced to spend more cash on mailers to reach a wider audience.

For Byrum, the apportionment process is about democracy at its core.

“The goal of county reapportionment is to create county commission districts that are as close to equal in population as possible,” she said in an email. “Residents of each district only get one representative on the Board of Commissioners, which means that those who live in a district with a smaller than average population will have a fractionally larger voice, whereas those who live in a district with more than the average would be represented slightly less so on the board.”

The new 15-seat commission would decrease the size of the commission districts, making commissioners more connected to their constituents, according to Commissioner Ryan Sebolt, He said that’s why he supported the 15-seat solution but has not endorsed any specific map.

Reapportionment also isn’t exclusive to Ingham County. Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope, also proposed a consolidation of precincts but it would not change the number of Council seats.

The proposed changes would ultimately shift three neighborhoods into a different ward in order to put voters closer to a bigger polling place and reduce the difference in the number of voters between the four wards of the city, Swope said in a Facebook post on Monday afternoon.

Additionally, city ward boundaries may change in the near future depending on the outcome of final 2020 census data in Lansing. City officials are considering challenging the outcome of the latest census, arguing that citizens may have been missed in the truncated census, which was complicated by the pandemic and decreased investment from the federal government.

The apolitical statewide apportionment commission is also redrawing state Senate and House districts in Michigan and working on changes to congressional districts. This year is the first time that a citizens commission, rather than lawmakers, has drawn the new district maps. The commission, as of Monday evening, was considering a map that would see the state Senate districts evenly split 19-19 between leaning Democratic and leaning Republican. 

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