A Grassroots Call to Ban Gerrymandering

A woman on July 12, 2018 staffs a booth in Chelsea, Michigan, supporting the group Voters not Politicians at the Chelsea Sounds and Sights on Thursday Nights festival.

A woman on July 12, 2018 staffs a booth in Chelsea, Michigan, supporting the group Voters not Politicians at the Chelsea Sounds and Sights on Thursday Nights festival. Shutterstock

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Voters Not Politicians gathered an astounding 425,000 signatures in Michigan to secure a spot on the November ballot for a proposed constitutional amendment creating a citizens’ commission for redistricting.

LANSING, Mich.—Katie Fahey walks into the Grand Traverse Pie Company, blocks from the state Capitol, wearing a black T-shirt that announces her cause. “Voters should choose their politicians,” it reads, “not the other way around.”

As Fahey steps to the counter to order lunch, the cashier, a twentysomething like her, recognizes the message. Last year, he tells her, he signed the initiative petition circulated by Voters Not Politicians to ban gerrymandering.

“We got almost a half a million people to sign,” enthuses Fahey, who founded the group in 2016 based on her viral Facebook post.

“That’s for the midterms?” asks the cashier’s co-worker.  

“Yeah! So, Yes on 2, November 6!” says Fahey. “We just need two million voters. It’s fine! We got this.”

Fahey’s bravado is both sincere and ironic. An improv troupe founder and a mile-a-minute talker, the short-statured, dark-haired 29-year-old projects an idealistic energy that helped inspire thousands of volunteers through a massive, low-budget petition drive. She’s also wittily understating her group’s mammoth task ahead—and its high stakes for democracy, in Michigan and beyond.

Voters Not Politicians’ efforts have pushed Michigan, a swing state that swung to Donald Trump in 2016, to the forefront of the national movement to fight gerrymandering, the manipulation of election maps for partisan advantage. Michigan is the largest of four states voting in November on proposed changes to how voting districts are drawn after each census. A win in Michigan, one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, could be a turning point for the growing effort to end partisan redistricting one state at a time.

It won’t be easy. But Voters Not Politicians’ volunteer army, led by Fahey, has already taken its effort farther than the state’s political insiders thought possible.

The crowd-sourced campaign held 33 town hall meetings in 33 days, wrote a ballot proposal to give redistricting powers to a citizens’ commission, and fanned out across Michigan with clipboards and petitions in hand. Last fall, Voters Not Politicians volunteers collected 425,000 petition signatures in four months to secure a spot on Michigan’s ballot—a rare feat, usually accomplished only by hiring paid signature gatherers.

This fall they’re tackling a new set of challenges to redeploy their canvassers to get out the vote, fundraise for TV ads, explain a complex proposal, channel Democrats’ anger against Michigan’s Republican gerrymander, and convince Republicans to support their proposal as a swamp-draining reform. Despite the group’s pledge not to work for any party’s advantage, conservative opponents have already tried to label the campaign a stalking-horse for Democrats’ ambitions. But polls show it’s winning support across the political spectrum.

“Nobody feels like their politicians are listening to them,” says Fahey. “People want to drain the swamp. They want the political revolution. … A lot of people understand that politicians [are] going to be politicians, and that them being able to control the outcome of elections doesn’t make sense.”

On election day 2016, Fahey, then 27, left her job at a recycling nonprofit in Lansing and rushed to the airport, thinking she’d witness history. A friend had an extra ticket to Hillary Clinton’s election watch party in New York City, and Fahey, who’d voted for Clinton that morning, thrilled at the invitation to go. “I could watch the first woman president find out she won,” Fahey remembers thinking.

Instead, Fahey got to midtown Manhattan in time to watch Donald Trump’s upset victory unfold. She was standing among other Clinton supporters at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, still dressed in the red pantsuit she’d worn to work, when a reporter captured her reaction.

“My disappointment makes me not trust the rest of the world,” Fahey told the Associated Press reporter that night. “I don’t even want to go out. I want to wear sweatpants and curl myself up in a corner.”

Afterward, Fahey says, she thought of her millennial friends, who’d enthused over Bernie Sanders in 2016, and her parents, who’d grown excited about Trump. “I don’t want to wait four years, and the next presidential election for them to stay engaged,” she recalls thinking. She dreaded Thanksgiving with her parents, fearing she’d end up in an argument about Trump and Clinton. “At Thanksgiving dinner, I wanted to talk about fixing stuff, and not candidates or political parties,” she recalls.

Fahey had never been involved in a political campaign, though she exhorted her friends to vote and had talked about her support for Clinton in conversation and enthusiastic Facebook posts. But she’d passed on attending Michigan State University to study sustainable business and community leadership at Aquinas College, a Dominican liberal-arts college in Grand Rapids that weaved Catholic social teaching into its curriculum. “If I see something not happening, I’m not afraid to go jump in and fix it,” she says. In the fall of 2016, Fahey was working full-time at the Michigan Recycling Coalition, studying for an MBA, and running two comedy troupes and the Grand Rapids Improv Festival. “I’m kind of a doer,” she says.

Two days after the election, Fahey went on Facebook. “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan,” she posted. “If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.” She’d learned about gerrymandering in school—in fourth grade, fifth grade, tenth grade, in a public administration class at Aquinas—and it had angered her each time.

“Redistricting,” Fahey says, “is one of the basic building blocks of democracy. It determines how 10 years of elections at a time will end up. And yet we know it’s corrupt and broken and we don’t do anything about it.”

Her post spread fast. Friends shared it in political Facebook groups. Strangers responded, offering help. Fahey set up a Facebook group of her own, Michiganders for Nonpartisan Redistricting Reform, and asked members to pledge to support a solution that didn’t benefit any individual or party. Organized with Google sheets, conference calls, and their first in-person meeting in January 2017, the group grew. By February they’d chosen a catchier name, Voters Not Politicians. They held 33 town hall meetings in 33 days, starting in Marquette and Alpena, northern Michigan cities that often get less political attention.

It’s not always easy to get people riled up about gerrymandering, but Michigan proved fertile for a grassroots revolt against it. The state is closely divided politically, yet ever since a Republican-controlled redistricting in 2011, the GOP has enjoyed a 9-5 dominance of the state’s congressional delegation and large majorities in the state legislature. The congressional map in metro Detroit includes some especially freakish shapes: the 11th district looks like a sleeping vulture, the 14th a bearded man meditating next to a crocodile’s jaws. Emails sent in 2011 between GOP congressional staffers, consultants, and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, recently disclosed in a lawsuit, make the mapmakers’ partisan bias clear. “We’ve spent a lot of time providing options to ensure we have a solid 9-5 delegation in 2012 and beyond,” a Chamber executive wrote.

Between 3,000 and 6,000 people came to Voters Not Politicians’ 33 town halls, Fahey says. They filled out surveys that asked if they wanted politicians to draw district lines, and if not, what process they’d prefer. Framing the question that way steered the group toward creating a citizens’ redistricting commission, like California and Arizona. Specifics were hammered out in two in-person meetings of about 50 people, with others joining online via Google docs and Trello. “Anyone who wanted to be at the policy table could be,” Fahey says: “a birthing doula, a lawyer, teachers, a caterer, pastor, veterinarian, an HR lawyer.”

The group took advice from Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, who helped create her state’s citizens redistricting commission in 2008. It also ran its draft by possible future allies, including the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, and the ACLU, to ensure it conformed to their endorsement criteria for redistricting reform.

Their proposal would amend Michigan’s constitution to create a 13-member redistricting commission made up of regular citizens: four Republicans, four Democrats, and five independents or members of minor parties. People would apply to join, and the commissioners would be randomly selected from among the qualified applicants, though legislative leaders would be able to strike a few names from the list. To keep political insiders off the commission, the proposal bans partisan elected officials, candidates for partisan offices, lobbyists, political consultants, members of party governing committees, state employees outside civil service, and their close relatives from serving on the commission.

More important, says Fahey, the proposal would embed fairness in redistricting into the state constitution. “We directly make gerrymandering illegal,” she says. (“Districts shall not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party,” the proposal reads. “Districts shall not favor or disfavor an incumbent elected official or a candidate.”)

But as Voters Not Politicians prepared to circulate petitions, it got discouraging advice. Conventional wisdom often claims that initiative petitions can’t get enough signatures to make the ballot with a volunteer petition drive alone—it takes paid signature gatherers. “There were a bunch of groups who were like, ‘You guys are crazy. We don’t want to work with you or endorse you yet, because you can’t do it,’” says Fahey. “I said ‘No! We’ve done the math.’”

The group had 180 days to gather 315,000 signatures in a state of 10 million people.  “We had a plan,” says field director Jamie Lyons-Eddy. “We needed 3,000 people to get 10 to 15 signatures a week.” Between social media recruits and town hall attendees who signed up to volunteer, 4,000 people ended up circulating petitions. Lyons-Eddy split the state into 14 regions, with about 10 petition teams in each. Still an online-only group with no physical offices, they crowd-sourced ideas on where to get people to sign. Highway rest stops proved especially fruitful. One woman collected 80 signatures while dressed up as the gerrymandered 11th district.

Costs were about one-tenth of what the conventional wisdom expected: the biggest expenses were $40,000 to print the petitions, $140,000 to have a consultant verify the petitions, much of it chipped in by the volunteers themselves. The group turned in 425,000 signatures, 70 days early. In July, the proposal survived a challenge at the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled 4-3that it fit in the structure of the state constitution.

Fahey thinks the keys to their success were taking on a systemic reform, inviting people to help write the ballot language, making the group easy to join, and having enthusiastic volunteers, not paid workers, convincing people to sign.

“I can actually impact the changes I’ve been wanting to see through direct democracy,” Fahey says, “not through a politician who’s maybe making a bunch of promises and not delivering.”

Late in August, Linda Yezbick walks through Detroit’s middle-class Palmer Woods neighborhood, holding an oversized clipboard. An adjunct English professor with gray-blond hair that reaches her shoulders, she’s got a Voters Not Politicians button pinned to her purse strap.

Yezbick knocks at a small Tudor Revival house in Detroit’s middle-class Palmer Woods neighborhood. Matthew Weiner opens the door, wearing a blue T-shirt, gray shorts, and sandals. She asks if he’s heard of Proposal 2. He’s not sure, so she delivers a two-minute pitch for Voters Not Politicians’ proposal.

“This is your voting district 14 here,” Yezbick says, holding up the back of her clipboard to show a map of the zig-zagging congressional district. “And the reason it’s this crazy shape--”

“Crazy,” Weiner agrees.

Yezbick is careful to sound nonpartisan notes. “Both Republicans and Democrats abuse the system,” Yezbick says. “It just so happens we’ve got Republicans in power right now.” But as she says Republicans squeezed as many Democrats as possible into the 14th, to make surrounding districts less competitive, she’s got a receptive audience in Weiner, for reasons beyond good-government reform.

“I’m against gerrymandering,” Weiner tells Yezbick, “and I’m a Democrat.” His mother-in-law recently read the book Ratf**ked, which describes how Republicans took control of redistricting in many states by targeting key elections in 2010.

Yezbick gets a similar reaction from Beverly Garner, one street over. Garner, holding her baby granddaughter at the door, says she’s a contributor to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She’s known about gerrymandering for a long time, and remembers when Democrats controlled the Michigan legislature in the 1980s and nudged maps in their direction. “I was very, very aware this time,” Garner says, “because of how it affected our area.”

Engaged Democrats like Weiner and Garner could lift Proposal 2 to victory. Pollsters are forecasting a blue wave in Michigan this year: Democrat Gretchen Whitmer leads Republican Bill Schuette by double digits in the governor’s race, and Democrats have a shot at taking at least two GOP congressional seats outside Detroit despite the gnarled maps: the 8th, which stretches from Lansing to Detroit’s northern suburbs, and the sleeping-vulture 11th.

Still, Voters Not Politicians has plenty of work ahead. A recent poll found Proposal 2 leading, 38 percent to 31 percent, but another 31 percent of voters undecided. To ramp up for the general election, Voters Not Politicians recently opened its first offices, to distribute lawn signs and literature, and is fundraising to pay for TV ads. As of summer’s end, it’s raised about $2 million, and Fahey says they’ll need millions more to win. Canvassing is still a big part of the strategy: volunteers have knocked on 148,000 doors so far to spread the word.

Redistricting proposals can confuse voters, says Bernie Porn, president of the Michigan polling firm EPIC-MRA. Though his firm hasn’t polled on Proposal 2 yet, he thinks Voters Not Politicians’ message—embedded in the group’s name—has made Proposal 2 more understandable.

“Voters should draw the lines, so that no one is favored—I think that message is resonating,” Porn says. “They haven’t really done a good job as yet in terms of getting that message out, other than door knocks and direct mail. If they have sufficient funding for some TV ads, I think the proposal will likely pass.”

Tony Daunt, director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Forum, is trying his best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“Their proposal is a complex, convoluted mess that doesn’t belong in Michigan’s constitution,” says Daunt. “They’re seeking to add in a process that creates a group of unaccountable, unelected, inexperienced, randomly chosen individuals to handle a very important part of our political process.”

Daunt objects to how Proposal 2 bans relatives of people in partisan politics from serving on the redistricting commission. He also fears liberals could slip onto the redistricting commission by declaring themselves independents.

Redistricting will always be political, Daunt argues. “There’s no such thing as a truly nonpartisan individual,” he says. “It’s a political process. This idea that you can take politics out of politics is silly.” He cites a ProPublica investigation that found Democrats were able to manipulate California’s independent redistricting commission. (Other studies suggest districts in California are less skewed by politics than in many other states.)

Daunt calls Voters Not Politicians a “front group” for Democrats. Last August, his organization noted that seven of Voters Not Politicians’ ten board members had donated to Democrats, none to Republicans. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by Obama’s former attorney general, Eric Holder, contributed $250,000 to Voters Not Politicians in September.  

“We’ve had people at the table since day one from all political beliefs,” Fahey says. Since last year, Voters Not Politicians has added former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, a Republican, to its board, and Fahey and another board member have sent small donations to GOP candidates. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former GOP governor of California and action-film star, has endorsed Proposal 2, calling on Michigan voters to “terminate gerrymandering.”

Can redistricting reform get bipartisan support, even in divisive times? It’s possible: a poll released in May showed 45 percent support for Proposal 2 among Republicans, compared to 62 percent support among Democrats. “Republican voters are easy!” Fahey says. “They see that government isn’t working, that we can’t get common-sense reforms.” That includes Fahey’s Trump-voting parents, who collected 700 signatures for Proposal 2.

If Proposal 2 wins, Voters Not Politicians’ shoestring grassroots-meets-netroots approach could become a model for fighting the gerrymander in other states. Fahey’s advice for fellow activists? “Don’t think you know the answer,” she says. “Be open to new ideas and challenging how people say it has to be done.”

Erick Trickey is a freelance writer in Boston who teaches magazine journalism at Boston University. This article originally appeared in The Atlantic

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