Political novices end a state gerrymander
Michigan is one of the most gerrymandered states in the United States. However, from 2022, a new independent redistribution commission will draw fairer boundaries, a move that will correct an electoral flaw that has caused mass disenfranchisement. It will mark a dramatic transfer of power from entrenched politicians to the people of Michigan. And it’s all thanks to a group of political novices, who decided to take matters into their own hands.
“A lot of people were ready to roll up their sleeves and fix things themselves because a lot of politicians and parties made promises that haven’t led to results,” said Katie Fahey, the founder of Voters Not Politicians (VNP).
Shortly after the 2016 election, Fahey, then 26 years old, noticed that everyone she knew seemed to be arguing over politics. Some had voted for Donald Trump, others for Bernie Sanders. Despite their differences, they were united in one thing: their dissatisfaction with the political establishment.
Fahey felt the gerrymander could be contributing to the anger on both sides. “I was less thinking about a candidate and instead wondered if other people [were] really interested in ‘draining the swamp’ and having a ‘political revolution’, but with these basic building blocks of democracy,” she said. “I found out that, yes, they were.”
After a few discussions, she posted on Facebook that she was interested in fixing Michigan’s gerrymandered districts and asked friends and family for help. The response was overwhelming. By early 2017, VNP had formed as a registered non-profit, comprised of volunteers with political views as diverse as those from Fahey’s social circles.
Its volunteer ranks quickly swelled, and in the months that followed, VNP fanned out across Michigan to hold dozens of information sessions, gauge voter sentiment and promote their ballot proposal. More 4,000 volunteers knocked on 125,000 doors and canvassed festivals and gatherings to collect the 400,000 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot.
The initiative passed with 61 percent of the vote in 2018.
How it plays out from here is being closely watched by other heavily gerrymandered states. The commission’s success may lie in how it’s set up. Gerrymandering is a political manoeuvre in which politicians draw electoral boundaries so “their voters” make up the majority in as many districts as possible. Whichever party controls the most districts writes the laws. In short, it’s a case of politicians picking voters instead of the other way around.
Michigan’s new commission will have four Republicans, four Democrats and five Independents, all randomly selected. Party insiders, politicians and their families are barred. It will draw maps that reflect Michigan’s population and won’t advantage any political party. A simple majority of commissioners can approve a map, but at least two Democrats, two Republicans and two Independents must be part of that majority.
Fahey isn’t stopping with Michigan, though. She has launched a new non-partisan non-profit called The People that helps others use the VNP model to enact structural change in their state. So far, residents in Florida and New Hampshire are holding community meetings to gather input on which issues to tackle, while a group in Virginia may choose between redistributing the state’s legislature or push forward with a ranked voting proposal.
Fahey says she’s seeing the same sentiment across the country that she saw in Michigan: “Regular voters want a system that treats people the same.”
ABOVE Katie Fahey speaking outside the Michigan Supreme Court