It was standing room only Saturday for state Rep. Vicki Barnett's (D-37th District) monthly coffee hour at Max & Erma's in Farmington Hills, and the first topic of discussion was redistricting.
Now that the 2010 census results are out, Michigan state lawmakers and county officials are working on redrawing district boundaries. Barnett invited Christina Kuo, executive director of Common Cause Michigan, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization, to talk about the process.
Kuo said people may wonder why officials can't just draw district lines in squares. She said it's important to think in terms of communities. A number of factors come into play, she said, including the federal Voting Rights Act, which ensures representation of minorities, and state laws.
Under Michigan's statutory guidelines, for instance, districts must be as compact as possible and follow county boundaries as closely as possible. Districts must also be whole areas within a single boundary line, without "pockets" of population that belong to other districts.
"People laugh, but that happens in other states," she said.
Common Cause's first priority, Kuo said, is getting more people involved in the process. However, the Legislature is required by law to provide only 18 hours' notice before holding committee meetings on redistricting bills. Also, she said, "They can write the bill in census tract data," which is not easy for most people to visualize.
Common Cause is advocating for lawmakers to post the redistricting plan and map on the state website, with at least two hearings on the bill in both the House and Senate and four public hearings, three outside of Lansing.
"I can guarantee you, there are some legislators who have never been to this part of the state," she said.
County Commission districts are drawn by a board comprising the county treasurer, county clerk, county prosecutor and leaders from the two political parties that got the most votes in the previous gubernatorial election, Kuo explained. They are bound by federal law, and the state sets "a statutory framework" for them to follow.
Oakland County officials have 60 days from when census data was published March 22 to publish their map, then the public has 30 days to challenge it. The plan will be posted at oakgov.com.
In addition to its other goals, Common Cause would like to see redistricting taken out of the hands of lawmakers, Kuo said, because of the conflict of interest. Lawmakers who aspire to hold a congressional seat, for instance, could use the process to ensure that their party has the edge in their own districts.
"We feel that's a huge conflict of interest," she said.
Changing the process would require concurrent resolutions in both the state House and Senate, passed by a two-thirds vote, or a citizen-driven ballot initiative, Kuo explained.
In the meantime, she said, citizens should lobby state lawmakers for more transparency in the process. Also, the public is invited to visit michiganredistricting.org to participate in a mapping contest created by law professor Jocelyn Benson, founder and CEO of the Michigan Center for Election Law and Administration and a 2010 Michigan Secretary of State candidate.
Starting April 20, software will be available on the site that will allow anyone to create a redistricting map. The top three maps that meet criteria for objectivity and fairness will be submitted to the Legislature for consideration, Kuo said. Virginia just wrapped up a similar competition among university students, she added.
Barnett said she doesn't expect the boundaries of the 37th House District to change; it currently encompasses the cities of Farmington and Farmington Hills.
That's OK with Lynn Margolis and Denise Moll, friends from Farmington Hills who attended the coffee. Both strongly support Barnett and appreciated her bringing in someone to talk about redistricting.
"I think Vicki, more than most, knows what she's talking about," said Moll, who added that she believes Barnett is one of few lawmakers who actually reads the bills that come before her. "Being an educator, I feel the need to know what's going on from someone I can trust."
While Moll said she has been to a number of coffee hours, Saturday's event was a first for Margolis.
"My kids have gotten older, so I feel I want to become more active in the community," she said, adding she was impressed by Barnett's command of the information. "I like the way she has the big picture. She really knows what's going on in Lansing. ... She stands for what she believes."