One of this year’s most significant citizen-led ballot initiatives was sparked by a Michigan woman’s dread at having to sit through a postelection Thanksgiving dinner.
It was early November 2016. Donald Trump had just defied the odds and captured the White House. Millions of Americans were gloating; millions more were cursing. Katie Fahey, then a 27-year-old recycling program coordinator from Grand Rapids, was anticipating a six-hour argument with her family, whose politics she does not share. “I was kind of fearing going home,” said Fahey. Then she had a thought. “If I have to go to Thanksgiving, maybe I could get my family to talk about an actual issue, one we can all agree on that’s basic and fair.”
She chose redistricting reform. An eye-glazing term, for sure, but it addresses a noxious anti-democratic practice, known as partisan gerrymandering, that is very real. It’s also as easy to understand as the fox and the henhouse: Politicians who benefit the most from how legislative district lines are drawn shouldn’t be entrusted with drawing them.
Yet, in 37 states, the legislatures hold the power to design maps that lock their party in power, regardless of what voters want. This increases political polarization, decreases competition, makes policy compromises difficult if not impossible and drives down voter turnout. Both parties do it when they get the chance, although Republicans have had many more chances, thanks to the wave that swept them into power in 2010, just before the latest redistricting cycle.
This self-serving entrenchment was at the heart of two cases involving extreme partisan gerrymanders before the U.S. Supreme Court this past term. The court had previously agreed that the practice is “incompatible with democratic principles,” and that at its most extreme it amounts to “rigging elections.” But the court has refused to step in, even as the nation’s politics have polarized and technologies have made it easier for politicians across the country to carve up their districts with surgical precision.
Michigan’s district maps, redrawn by a then-new Republican majority in 2011, are among the most skewed in the country. In a state that Donald Trump won by fewer than 11,000 votes out of 4.8 million cast — a victory margin of 0.3 percentage points — Republicans hold a 9-5 edge in congressional seats and a 27-11 advantage in the state Senate. In the state House, Republicans maintain a 63-47 advantage, even though a majority of voters picked Democrats in 2016. Republicans deny that they purposefully drew themselves these extreme majorities. But in a 2011 email, a lawyer helping to shape the new maps wrote to a Republican legislative aide, “We’ve spent a lot of time providing options to ensure we have a solid 9-5 delegation in 2012 and beyond.”
As the 2020 redistricting cycle approaches, voters across the country are left to figure out for themselves how to ensure fairness in a representative democracy. It’s an issue that has been bothering Fahey since she first learned about it in her fourth-grade classroom.
“I remember asking the teacher, ‘Why don’t we fix it if we know politicians cheat?’ The teacher said, ‘That’s the way it’s always been done,'” Fahey said. “And that was just not the answer I wanted to hear. There’s this basic building block in your democracy that you know is corrupt, and we’re not going to do anything about it.”
In 2016, Fahey decided to do something about it. On Nov. 10, two days after the election, she posted a short, unremarkable message on Facebook. “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan,” Fahey wrote. “If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.”
She’d written the same post two years earlier and hadn’t gotten a single reply. But 2016 was different: People everywhere were newly engaged in politics, debating one another and demanding fundamental changes in their government. Voters in Michigan’s primaries that year had chosen the anti-establishment candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. “These two candidates are talking about taking down the system, this extreme overhaul,” Fahey said. “It seems like people are really hungry for that.”
Her Facebook post went viral. A nonprofit group, Voters Not Politicians, was born. Its goal: getting a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot that would take map-drawing power from lawmakers — who would never relinquish it themselves — and give it to a commission made up of citizens to consult with data analysts and present their progress in regular public hearings. Independent redistricting commissions, which are functioning in California, Arizona, and four other states, can go a long way toward reducing the influence of partisan politics in mapmaking.
The Michigan proposal would establish a 13-member commission made up of four Republican voters, four Democratic voters and five independents.
The group initially scheduled eight town halls to make its case to the public. They ended up holding 33 in 33 days. “A bunch of us with day jobs, speeding to northern Michigan after work, trying to find a public library to host the town hall in, because we don’t have any money,” Fahey said. “We basically crowdsourced the campaign.”
Less than two years after her Facebook post, Fahey leads a volunteer army of 10,000 Michiganders representing every county in the state. Five thousand of the volunteers work daily, knocking on doors, educating voters and gaining support for the initiative. Michigan requires citizen ballot measures to get 315,000 signatures; in December, Fahey’s group submitted more than 425,000. In June, the state approved the measure and added it to the ballot.
Even Fahey’s family is on board. Her mother personally gathered 700 signatures. So far, the group has raised about $1.25 million, far less than most citizen-led initiatives, and yet it has 14 times more individual donors than any other Michigan initiative this year.
The initiative looks like a prime example of regular citizens rising up and making their voices heard when lawmakers are ignoring them. But the web of money and politics that has entrenched Michigan Republicans in power isn’t tearing easily. The state Republican Party and its top politicians, including Bill Schuette, the attorney general now running for governor, are working hard to have the initiative struck from the November ballot. They’ve taken the fight to the Michigan Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments last week. The court is expected to rule by the end of July.
The opponents say a citizens commission would impose such sweeping changes to the Michigan Constitution that it can be adopted only through a constitutional convention. An appeals court rejected that argument unanimously in June, but the outcome in the state’s Supreme Court is uncertain. Five of the seven justices were nominated or appointed by Republicans, and two of those have received financial backing from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which also happens to be one of the main funders of the opposition campaign. Both justices have refused to recuse themselves from the case.
It’s easy to see why, even though the public broadly opposes partisan gerrymandering, few people have the stomach, or the resources, to get into a fight of this sort with entrenched money and power. It didn’t help when the Supreme Court dodged the issue again in June. Following the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, seen as the crucial fifth vote to curb gerrymandering, the court is unlikely to revisit the issue for a long time, if ever. So is reform a lost cause? Justice Elena Kagan has reiterated what many consider to be the central problem: “Only the courts can do anything to remedy the problem, because gerrymanders benefit those who control the political branches,” she wrote.
The good news is that Katie Fahey and others like her are proving Kagan wrong. Michigan is one of several states, red and blue, where regular citizens, tired of being the pawns of power-hungry lawmakers, are fighting to take back the mapmaking process. Initiatives will also be on the ballot in Utah, almost certainly in Missouri, and possibly in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
A truly fair process must be transparent as well as nonpartisan. Redistricting today is a sophisticated, data-driven enterprise, and that data should be available to everyone — the public as well as journalists, analysts and advocates.
There are other ways to stop the worst excesses of partisan gerrymandering. When a state’s governor is of a different party than its legislative majority, the governor — who doesn’t depend on cleverly drawn lines to get elected — can veto unfair maps. In today’s political landscape, where Republicans hold total control of the government in 26 states, this means electing more Democrats. The Democratic Governors Association is pouring money into governors’ races in eight closely divided states — Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado, Maine and Nevada. But the principle also works in Maryland, where the popular Republican governor, Larry Hogan, serves as a buffer against the state’s Democratic Legislature, which created an extreme partisan gerrymander.
Finally, litigation can still be effective in some states. This year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down Republican-drawn district maps for violating the state constitution and appointed a nonpartisan mapmaker to draw new ones. The maps, drawn in 2011, were so skewed that when Democrats won a majority of the popular vote in 2012, they got just five of the state’s 18 congressional seats. How did Republican lawmakers deal with losing their power? First they defied the court’s ruling and then they tried to impeach the justices who voted in favor of it.
The Pennsylvania high court did the right thing in this case, but voters can’t count on state courts to step in and solve all redistricting disputes. In other words, the fox will never willingly abandon his post, so it’s up to the Katie Faheys of America to help move the henhouse.
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