PLYMOUTH, Michigan—Katie Fahey was worried about Thanksgiving.
She was fretting over the growing divide across the country that would turn holiday tables laden with mashed potatoes and roast turkey into political battlefields after the slow-motion shipwreck of a presidential campaign.
“My family is politically divided,” Fahey says. “It’s after the election, I’m thinking about Thanksgiving, and not wanting to go home. Because I just didn’t want to have another conversation about politicians. Because it’s not about politicians.”
The executive director of the Voters Not Politicians Ballot Committee in her native Michigan, Fahey had gleaned something else—something heartening—from the brutal election season. A political junkie for years, she discovered an entire class of political neophytes finally displaying a passion similar to hers.
“Friends and family that I’m always begging to get involved in politics, they’re finally talking about it,” Fahey says, drinking something caffeinated and sugary surrounded by mediocre coffee house art with her state field director, Jamie Lyons-Eddy.
Fahey realized that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump had both struck a populist chord, albeit in different keys. Seizing the moment, two days after the November 2016 election Fahey reposted a Facebook status she had written three years earlier that had slipped into the social media ether.
The post exploded. Dozens of people messaged her wanting to join, including complete strangers. Fahey jokes that the emoji, missing in her first missive, was key.
In response to the outpouring, Fahey formed a Facebook group, Michiganders for Non-Partisan Redistricting Reform.
“The group, from day one, was going to be about action,” Fahey says. “It was not going to be a place you complain.”
Action has been the watchword ever since, as a grassroots campaign thousands of people strong grew from the Facebook group, becoming large enough that it is now the umbrella organization that includes the Voters Not Politicians Ballot Committee. The purpose has remained simple: end gerrymandering in Michigan.
Gerrymandering is the manipulation of district borders—the regions represented by state and federal politicians—to help a certain political group over another. It is a timeworn bit of American gamesmanship, deriving its name from Massachusetts governor and Declaration of Independence signatory Elbridge Gerry, who in the early 1800s drew an unusual district map to benefit his own party that a political cartoonist lampooned as resembling a salamander. It is done mostly behind closed doors, the foundational element of our government—that it represents its electorate—perverted for party gain. It’s the ultimate insider’s game.
Gerrymandering reached a new apex in 2011 with REDMAP, a massive and concerted effort to have Republicans redraw as many of the district lines as possible to seize and remain in control of states across the country and the House of Representatives. Drawn up by GOP strategist Chris Jankowski as a response to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory, REDMAP focused national money on key state races that would allow the remaking of district lines. “People ask me about REDMAP,” Jankowski told Vice’s Gianna Toboni. “Wasn’t it so unfair what you did? Well, we took the rules that applied, we told them what we were going to do, and we did it.”
The end result was maybe the most successful and widespread gerrymandering in history.
Gerrymandering is partially about political tactics, and partially taking advantage of current political trends, explains Dr. Matt Grossman, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and associate professor of political science at Michigan State. This includes the polarization of the electorate and the geographic clumping of Democrats. The combination of party line-towing during elections and Democrats’ tendency to accumulate in urban areas makes it easier to manipulate district lines. In states like Wisconsin, Maryland and Michigan, the party in power is drawing borders to divide and weaken voter blocks—“cracking” them—or to hem them all in together, essentially ceding one district in order to win those around it, known as “packing.” Traditionally, racial gerrymandering concerned watch dogs the most . Now, Grossman says, it is partisan.
Voters Not Politicians is a single-issue group focused on one thing only: taking the map-drawing power out of the hands of politicians and giving it to the voters. The organization spent roughly a year on research before gathering the first signature, and joined up with the original Voters Not Politicians, which spent years developing policy ideas. To ensure popular input, Fahey and her volunteers went to 33 town halls in 33 days to determine if their independent committee was the answer the voters wanted. Attendees were encouraged to fill out an online survey that included demographic information—age, zip, race/ethnicity—and who they agreed or disagreed should be able to participate in a redistricting commission, including any registered voter, current and former lawmakers, people who donated over $2,000 to a party or candidate in the past five years, and lobbyists.
The ballot committee formed in March 2017, and canvassers covered every corner of the state that summer, including the oft-neglected Upper Peninsula and rural areas which rarely, if ever, see a visit from their representatives. In December 2017, their petitions were turned in.
The ballot initiative Fahey and co. are advocating would amend the Michigan state constitution and create an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission made up of Michigan residents randomly selected by the Secretary of State’s office. The 13 people chosen would mirror the demographic makeup of the state and be bipartisan—four Democrats, four Republicans, and five independents, affiliations they must sign to under oath—and they would draw district lines every 10 years. Volunteers fanned out across the state, seeking to gather the 315,654 signatures required to put the initiative on the ballot this November. In the end, they received more than 425,000 signatures.
“What I kept hearing for why people were joining is they felt like they weren’t listened to, their representatives didn’t represent them, and that they were tired of waiting for somebody else to fix it,” Fahey says.
Fahey insists that those people are the driving force behind Voters Not Politicians, not any kind of party allegiance. While an anti-gerrymandering initiative may help Democrats now, it will protect all voters from gerrymandering in the future, which both parties have exploited in the past.
There has been pushback, with allegations of liberal partisanship flying. According to Fahey and Lyons-Eddy, their signers span the political spectrum, and Voters Not Politicians is in no way affiliated with the Democratic party. Republican-identifying voters work for the initiative, most notably former Republican U.S. Rep Joe Schwarz, a board member.
“This citizens initiative was not pushed by the Democratic party or the Democratic establishment,” Brandon Dillon, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, told A Beautiful Perspective. “These were people who went out and did what most people thought was impossible, which was to get enough signatures to get on the ballot without having to pay a firm or people to go out and get those signatures.” The Michigan Republican party did not respond to multiple calls and voicemails for comment.
“What I kept hearing for why people were joining is they felt like they weren’t listened to, their representatives didn’t represent them, and that they were tired of waiting for somebody else to fix it.”
“I think we’re nonpartisan, I really do,” said Hal Gurian, a volunteer with Voters Not Politicians. A conservative, Gurian originally came from Maryland, where his ideology was the victim of gerrymandering. “My ultimate goal is to make government more responsive to the people,” he added. Having the people draw the district lines is one step towards that goal.
The measure’s strongest challenge comes from Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, who filed a lawsuit to keep the initiative off the ballot, arguing that it was both too expansive a revision of the constitution without a Constitutional Convention and too restrictive in that it did not reprint all the parts it was affecting. John Kennedy, CEO of Autocam Medical and, as of their April 2018 campaign finance filing, the single largest donor to Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, sees serious flaws with amending the state constitution this way. Kennedy framed his concerns in two major parts: that the amendment may eliminate protections designed to ensure racial and ethnic minorities have representatives indicative of their communities, and how to find five true independents for the Redistricting Commission.
Michigan’s Supreme Court will decide if the initiative can stay on the ballot; Grossman, the MSU political scientist, is confident it will.
“We just want all eyes on Michigan,” Lyons-Eddy says. “We’re in this unique position because we’re one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, we have the initiative referendum process, and, thanks to Katie, we have this unprecedented movement.”
As November looms, and with it the chance to dramatically alter Michigan’s current political ecosystem, Fahey has found hope in the thousands of volunteer hours dedicated to the cause even as polarization courses between the coasts. She’s also learned something crucial about her fellow voters of all ideologies:
“Even if our political parties are super divided, and they make us feel like our neighbors or the people across the aisle are evil or uncompromising … at the end of the day, I have seen consistently, from day one, a group of strangers come together to want to do the right thing and step up to the challenge repeatedly,” Fahey says. “My faith has never been stronger in the fact that people actually care and want to focus on creating something that’s good, instead of something that’s going to benefit themselves.”
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