Michigan Republicans were prevented from directly participating in redrawing state’s voting maps by voters. They launched a coordinated effort in order to influence the independent commission tasked to do the job ,. This action was documented in a series recordings that were obtained by NBC News.
Senior party officials held training sessions last month and gave talking points to help Republican supporters argue for map changes that would favor GOP candidates. Those same talking points were later repeated in testimony taken by the commission as part of the redistricting process in the critical battleground state.
Video recordings of two Zoom training sessions conducted on Oct. 18 and 19 were shared with NBC News by a source critical of the effort. These sessions were led by Republican operatives including Senior Director Sarah Anderson and Andrea Pollock, Michigan Republican Party Political Director. They were also recorded by members of FAIR Maps Michigan. FAIR Maps Michigan is a conservative redistricting organization that has criticised the independent commission.
“Under law, we are not allowed to engage directly with members of the commission. We haven’t and will not engage with them directly, which is why all of you are here. You get to go talk to them in public hearings and leave messages on the portal,” Anderson told attendees of the Oct. 19 training.
National redistricting experts said that the influence effort, which appears to have been timed to a series of public hearings on draft maps released in October, underscores the difficulty independent redistricting commissions in other states have faced in attempting to divorce politicians from the process of drawing new congressional and state legislative district boundaries. When these commissions ask for public input, both the parties and special interest groups look for other opportunities to participate. NBC News viewed the GOP training sessions and it shows how organized efforts are made to preserve the party’s advantage in new maps.
Doug Spencer, a redistricting expert and a law professor at the University of Colorado, said that “it undermines that idea, that what you’re hearing is actually curated comments from political parties or advocacy organizations, but that’s the reality of American politics.”
He continued: “While the commission can be independent, the process will always be political.”
Pollock and Anderson, in an interview with NBC News, said that the party is seeking fair maps that give the GOP a chance to compete, and argued that they believe Democrats and even some nonpartisan groups are attempting to skew the system against them.
” The party’s interest is in a fair map. We don’t want the commission to gerrymander for our benefit. Anderson stated that we are asking them to not gerrymander in favor of Democrats.
State and county-level Democrats claimed that they have encouraged and assisted voters in redistricting, even going so far as to share talking points. Lavora Barnes, Michigan Democratic Party Chair, stated that her party does not hold training sessions like the Republicans. Anderson sent an email after this article was published. It appeared that Anderson was disputing multiple claims made by Michigan Democrats, including Barnes’ that the party hadn’t held formal trainings. The email, sent Oct. 15 by Emily Boyer, senior political adviser on redistricting, invites Democrats in the Kalamazoo area to attend a Zoom training on advocating for fair maps.
A party spokesperson, when asked about Thursday’s email, confirmed that the event had taken place. When asked about the email Thursday night, a spokesman for the party said that only four people attended and that the event was primarily focused upon explaining the redistricting process as well as the logistics of allowing public comment. The spokesman stated that none of the participants wanted to testify personally. A similar event was also held in Kent County by the party over Zoom, according to the spokesman.
Asked about her earlier remarks, Barnes said in a statement Thursday night that “by no means have we had trainings that actively seek to undermine the commissioners working to prevent partisan gerrymandering.”
“Typical, right? “Democrats are not as organized,” stated Mark Brewer, ex-chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. He noted that several interest groups, including environmental groups, and the Bangladeshi community of Hamtramck (a city near Detroit), had organized in the state in order to influence the commission. “The fact that Republicans are doing that is not bad, per se, it’s what you’re teaching people to say and why.”
The independent commission
For decades, Michigan’s redistricting process was conducted by Republican lawmakers who controlled the state legislature. Redistricting experts have frequently held up the state’s maps over the last decade as extreme partisan gerrymanders that boosted GOP candidates.
In 2019, a panel of three federal judges declared the maps to be an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander and ordered the Legislature to come up with a new plan for nine congressional and 25 state legislative districts — but the Supreme Court later overturned that ruling, declaring that such challenges involve an issue that is essentially political, beyond the authority of federal courts to resolve on legal grounds. The state legislature is still controlled by Republicans, but the new maps are not being drawn this year.
In 2018, 61 percent of Michigan voters supported an amendment to the state’s Constitution known as Proposal 2 that pulled the power to draw maps from the politicians in charge. The amendment created an independent citizens’ redistricting committee consisting of five members who are not affiliated with any of the major parties and four members from each party. They were chosen randomly from a pool that had been vetted. The Constitution entrusts the commission with drawing districts according to a number of factors ranked in order of importance.
The top priorities are equal-sized and geographically contiguity districts, followed by the protection of “communities of interests,” which are groups that have “cultural or historic characteristics or economic interests,” although this does not include shared political ideologies. The priorities are partisan fairness, not favoring incumbents and candidates, existing county, town, and city boundaries, and compactness of districts.
Michigan Republicans publicly fought Proposal 2, unsuccessfully sued to block its implementation and have been openly critical of the commission during the more than 100 public meetings it has held since September 2020.
The training sessions
In the two Zoom training sessions viewed by NBC News, operatives repeatedly described existing county and city boundaries as “communities of interest,” in an apparent effort to help supporters appeal to the commission’s priorities, and suggested Democrats were trying to rig the process.
Spencer stated that while maintaining city and county boundaries in political districts may appear neutral, it actually favors Republicans in redistricting. Experts and strategists in Michigan say that Democrats are more likely to live near one another and that using these boundaries as guidelines will result in Democrats being drawn into favorable but smaller districts. The operatives also stressed the importance of lobbying for specific requests to the commission.
“If they keep Kent County whole in the congressional map, if they keep Grand Rapids whole as much as possible – like wholly enclosed in the state Senate district and limited to two breaks in the House, there’s very little they can do to the rest of the map across the state that does not – it would be a domino effect, right?” Anderson said in an Oct. 19training. “If they keep those things whole, there’s not much they can do to screw around with the rest of the state.”
Kent County, the state’s fourth-most populous and its urban seat ofGrand Rapids voted for President Joe Biden in 2020, in part thanks to a growing demographic shift that has politically altered an area that was once a Republican stronghold. It is important that the district’s liberal voters remain together by keeping it intact.
Jeff Timmer, former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, said the talking points mirror the strategy he employed in 2010 as a Republican official drawing maps he now acknowledges baked in a strong partisan advantage.
Broadly, keeping counties and cities intact will keep Democrats packed into urban districts due to the natural geographic segregation of voters, he said, adding that it appeared Republicans are now using the phrase “communities of interest” as a “kind of code word for the geographic segregation that already exists.”
“When somebody says communities of interest in metro Detroit — you know, respect city boundaries in communities of interest,” Timmer said. “That’s a code word for Blacks in Detroit.”
Timmer is now a member of the Lincoln Project, a political action committee formed by current and former Republicans who oppose former President Donald Trump, and said he regrets the gerrymander he helped create because he said it has empowered political extremes. Elections are often decided by gerrymandered maps in primaries. These tend to favor candidates more extreme than those who are likely to win in a general election. The U.S. House of Representatives has become so polarized because both parties have tried to pack their voters into safe areas.
During the Oct. 18 training session, Meghan Reckling, who was identified at the session as a part of Fair Maps Michigan and whose Twitter account identifies her as chair of the Livingston County Republican Party, zeroed in on Macomb County, a predominantly white district to the north of Detroit, a city that is nearly 80 percent Black, according to 2019 Census estimates. “If you are from Macomb, you might talk about keeping Macomb (as whole as possible) or the fact you have nothing in common avec Detroit,” she said.
Anderson said Reckling declined to speak with NBC News, but said Reckling had pointed to a recent tweet arguing lots of people want their communities kept whole.
‘We beg of you, listen to us’
At times, nearly verbatim messaging from party officials made its way to commission hearings via the training sessions. The most important thing at this Grand Rapids meeting was to highlight the fact that there isn’t a single commissioner on the west side. They do not understand your communities, so please we beg of you, listen to us,” Anderson said in the Oct. 19 training.
Three days later, Connie Eardley, who identified herself at both the training session and the public hearing, made very similar remarks to the commission.
“I don’t think you can be an expert on our communities because there isn’t a west Michigan representative on the board. She said that she asked you to listen to the people who are experts in our communities. “Communities that are of common interest are more important than partisan fairness in the Constitution.” Geography does not care about partisanship.”
Eardley urged the commission to keep Ottawa County together. A message she received on Facebook did not get a response.
Voters Not Politicians was the group that spearheaded the campaign to create an independent redistricting commission. It said that it had provided materials to help groups from both political parties and that volunteers have held training sessions.
” The difference between public input or these secret meetings was intent and transparency — whether it is to inform and manipulate the process to inject bias into our maps. This is what Nancy Wang, the group’s executive director said when she was asked about the Republican Party’s efforts.
Douglas Clark is a Republican who serves on the commission. He said that sometimes witnesses would recite the same script, which makes it clear that they are working together, but that the commission was open to citizen input regardless of party affiliation.
BrittniKellom, a Democrat, said that the panel was unlikely to be influenced by any attempt to emphasize one redistricting criteria above another, such as communities or partisan fairness,
” The public’s emphasis on particular criteria does not force us to take it more seriously than what we are supposed to in the Constitution,” she stated.
” No public comment will cause us not to follow those Constitutional requirements,” said Rebecca Szetela. She is not affiliated with either party.
UPDATE (Nov. 5, 12: 01 a.m. ET): This article was updated to reflect new information about two training sessions the Democratic Party acknowledges hosting.