opinion

Unwittingly, media outlets aid redistricting plan opponents

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Trust me, nobody gets more agitated by closed meeting and government records being kept from the public eye than I do. 

But the Detroit papers and Bridge Michigan are fighting someone else’s battle by suing for a pair of obtuse documents the Michigan’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission doesn’t want us to see.

The juice might have been worth the squeeze six months ago, long before the redistricting commission was putting pen to paper on the maps. The public should know how Blacks historically were drawn in Michigan congressional and legislative boundaries, the subject of these documents.

Should dense pockets of Black voters be “packed” together, almost assuredly giving them representation from a Black public official? 

Or should they be cracked and mixed in with white-majority suburbs, giving Black candidates more opportunities to win seats in the Legislature?

Here in Michigan, we’ve been packing Blacks together for at least the last three cycles. The courts have been OK with that. 

But what about cracking? How does that work? Are the feds OK with lots of 40% Black districts instead of fewer 55% Black districts? 

Our new citizen-led redistricting commission went the road less traveled. They cracked the maps in Detroit, spidering legislative districts out of Detroit into the suburbs like spokes on a wheel. 

Is that good or bad? It’s different. The federal courts might not be OK with this. We’re taking the word of the commission’s attorney, Bruce Adelson, that it is, but other attorneys will argue otherwise.

All of this should have been talked out in the spring, when the commission was busying itself with micromanaging its little bureaucracy. 

Alas, this wasn’t the priority. The commission didn’t talk much about it. The press didn’t write much about it. It was a missed opportunity and a shame. 

All of the commission’s hard work could be flushed down the porcelain with one adverse decision from a federal judge because this wasn’t talked out. Michigan voters’ new experiment with a redistricting commission would be a failure.

From the get-go, opponents to the commission had only a few legitimate arguments on dismantling the commission’s maps. Arguing in federal court that they screwed up the U.S. Voting Rights Act was always on the list. 

By the commission taking the path less chosen, the argument moved up to No. 1 or No. 2 in terms of best potential legal arguments.

Adelson’s secret documents should have existed in the spring. The commission should have asked for them. The press should have asked about it.

Instead, these documents surfaced in the fall. Commissioners already cracked Detroit by then. Every legislative map the commission drew together has Detroit the center of a crooked pinwheel.

The public complained about it and the media wrote stories about the outcry, but nothing changed. The commission made its mind up.

Knowing the legal risk, the commission’s legal team of four attorneys circled the wagons and gave the commission these “what’s up” memos. The press wants to see them.

The attorneys don’t want to play euchre with the other side seeing their cards. They are telling the press to take a hike. 

This isn’t about the press anymore. This is about FAIR Maps or the coalition of Detroit voters or whoever else wants to dismantle these maps in court.

The Detroit News, The Detroit Free Press and Bridge Michigan did the work of these groups by suing to make these documents public. 

They are unwittingly helping the cause of shoot down this commission’s work, inserting itself in a larger chess game in the name of open government, when:

 —This commission’s map drawing process has been painfully transparent up to this point.

 — The news value of the documents is much, much more about the chase than the actual content.

 — Information contained in the documents likely will be argued in open court eventually anyway.

Sure, maybe the Supreme Court orders the documents be released. The press scores what looks like an empty net goal to me. 

But does the goal really equal a win? 

(Email Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS at melinnky@gmail.com.)

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