Only a legal challenge can change redistricting

May 22, 2011
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The next step for the Kent County Apportionment Commission is to send the county’s redistricting plan to the Secretary of State in Lansing. Last Thursday, commissioners chose the plan submitted by the Kent County Republican Party.

“Once that plan is submitted, it is official and it will be the plan unless there is a legal challenge to it that could overturn it,” said Kent County Treasurer Kenneth Parrish, chairman of the commission. “But it does not need to be approved by anybody up the chain, if you will. We do have to submit the plan within a 60-day window from when we got the data, so I think June 6 is our deadline for submitting it to the Secretary of State’s office,” he added.

A legal challenge could find its way into federal or state court, depending on the basis of the challenge. Parrish said the Federal Voting Rights Act lays out the legal guidelines for redistricting throughout the country, and if someone doesn’t feel the approved plan meets that law, then a suit could be filed in federal court.

“Or if they didn’t feel like we followed the state statutes that dictate the process, I would assume they would file in state Circuit Court,” he said.

This was the second apportionment commission Parrish has served on. He was a commissioner following the 2000 U.S. Census, which led to the county’s current voting districts. “At that particular time, the plan was not challenged in court,” he said. “So I didn’t have to deal with that.” But he said the redistricting plan that came out of the 1990 census was challenged in court.

Kent County Corporate Council Dan Ophoff said having an incumbent county commissioner be forced to run in a new district or having two incumbents run against each other aren’t valid reasons to challenge the state law. “Neighborhoods are not a state law factor,” he added.

The plan drawn by the GOP keeps the number of districts at 19, which means the Kent County Board of Commissioners will remain at 19. The commission has 15 Republicans and four Democrats on the board currently. Some have said the GOP plan could put the seat held by Carol Hennessy, a Democrat, in jeopardy because it pushes much of her district into Walker.

The Republican plan has 10 splits, meaning governmental boundaries are crossed 10 times. One GOP district, District 17 in Grand Rapids, has a majority of voting-age African-Americans.

The GOP plan’s population for each district ranges from a low of 30,060 to a high of 33,326. If the county was evenly divided into 19 districts, the average population for each one would be 31,717. Grand Rapids is sectioned into seven districts, while Wyoming is in four. Kentwood and East Grand Rapids are each in two districts, while Walker and Grandville are each in one. Nineteen of the county’s 21 townships are each in a single district. Only Plainfield and Caledonia townships are in two.

“We adopted the best plan and the fairest plan submitted to the commission,” said Kent County GOP Chairman Sam Moore, also an apportionment commissioner.

Kent County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Rinck, also a commissioner, said the Republican plan didn’t meet the state requirement for compactness, and he singled out District 15. “What we’ve got here is a plan that is simply designed for political purposes,” he said.

Even though the bulk of its work is over, the reapportionment commission won’t disband because the new redistricting plan won’t go into effect until the 2012 general election, when the new districts will come into play.

“So through 2012, the existing commission stays in place,” said Parrish. The commission will meet on a needs-only basis from now through next year.

Starting in 2013, Parrish will relinquish his title as “permanent chairman.” Commission Secretary Mary Hollinrake, also Kent County Clerk and Register of Deeds, will take on the title of “temporary chairwoman” of the apportionment commission. Hollinrake will hold that title until the next commission is organized after the 2020 census or until she leaves the county post. Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth is also on the commission.

“We’re really kind of a taskforce. We come into play to get a specific task done and then we go away. Then we don’t come back for 10 years,” said Parrish. “A once-in-a-ten-year-deal is kind of a strange beast.”

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