In a small community center some 90 miles north of Grand Rapids, a grassroots activist named Katie Fahey was hard at work trying to explain why democracy sometimes feels like such a mess.
You see, this was about gerrymandering – a subject that could readily make eyes roll in sheer indifference.
But as Fahey asserted earlier this month before a group of about 30 in the community of Lake Michigan community of Pentwater, this practice is nothing less than an assault on their fundamental rights as voters.
“It's not just one party doing it to another. It's the game that is flawed,” said Fahey, whose day job is program coordinator for the Lansing-based Michigan Recycling Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
Fahey is among a few dozen core volunteer activists behind a nonpartisan outfit called Voters Not Politicians with an ambitious – some might say quixotic – goal of shaking up how that game is played.
The vision: Place a 2018 constitutional ballot question before Michigan voters that would seize from politicians the power to draw political boundaries and give it to the people. As of now, the Legislature redraws district lines for state House and state Senate and Congress every 10 years following the census.
In 2011, that process was entirely in the hands of Republicans, since they controlled the Legislature and governor’s seat. Some political analysts (see accompanying story) say that resulted in districts across the state drawn to the GOP’s advantage. It’s a tactic known as gerrymandering, a name inspired by the strange shape districts sometimes take under redistricting and the 19th century politician who perfected it, Elbridge Gerry.
Launched a few months ago, the Voters Not Politicians group has held more than 30 town hall meetings across the state, both to drive up awareness about the issue and collect feedback on how best to remake the process. Volunteers plan to begin gathering signatures this summer.
For its ballot issue, the group expects to propose some form of independent commission to redraw political boundaries, rather than leaving that in the hands of the Legislature.
“It's in the details,” explained Nancy Wang, an assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan, and head of the group within Voters Not Politicians charged with coming up a replacement for the current model.
Wang said the group is looking to states like California, which reworked its system in time for reapportionment in 2011. It’s one of 13 states that utilize commissions to draw electoral district lines.
Approved by voters in 2008, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission consists of five Democrats, five Republicans and four nonpartisan. Under its bylaws, any redistricting plan must be approved by three Democrats, three Republicans and three nonpartisan commissioners.
Arizona has used a similar process since 2001, as its boundaries for Congress and state legislative seats are drawn by a bipartisan commission consisting of two Democrats, two Republicans and an independent chair.
Confusing lines, frustrated voters
But even those bipartisan efforts are no guarantee of political harmony.
In Arizona, the state’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, sought to fire the chairwoman of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission in 2011. Brewer alleged the redistricting maps it drew for congressional and legislative seats were biased toward Democrats.
“I will not sit idly by while Arizona’s Congressional and legislative boundaries are drawn in a fashion that is anything but constitutional and proper,” Brewer said.
The Republican-controlled Arizona state Senate voted 21-6 to fire commission head Colleen Mathis. A couple weeks later, the state’s Supreme Court overturned the firing, and reinstated Mathis as head of the commission.
Wang said she considers herself a Democrat. Fahey presumably could be deemed so as well, given that she was quoted the night of Hillary Clinton's defeat at what was expected to be a New York City victory celebration: “My disappointment makes me not trust the rest of the world.”
But Wang, like Fahey, insists Voters Not Politicians has no hidden partisan agenda. She said the group includes university students, professors, real estate agents, accountants, lawyers, retirees, and yes, Republicans.
“As a group we are feeling like a lot of people. We are just sick of it from both sides. We want a return to the democratic process, that's what we want,” Wang said.
“Our overall goal is to get politicians out the redistricting process.”
As of now, Michigan still stands with the majority of states in how it does redistricting, as 37 states left legislatures in charge of the process as of January.
High barriers to ballot
And while it can be tough to convey to voters why this issue matters, it is easier to see what the process does to the shape of districts. Under common standards for redistricting, districts are supposed to be geographically compact to the extent possible.
In her PowerPoint presentation at the Pentwater town hall session, Fahey flashed zig-zaggy images of the 76th state House district in Grand Rapids and the 4th state Senate district in Detroit. Both look as though they might have been constructed by an impaired Lego builder.
But she noted that crazy-looking districts emerge under Democratic-controlled redistricting as well, pointing to Maryland's squiggly and sprawling 3rd congressional district that includes much of Baltimore and parts of four counties.
At points just one block wide, the district deemed by a recent study to be the third least compact congressional district of 435 seats in the nation.
But Voters Not Politicians needs to clear a couple of high bars to succeed. After it pulls petitions, the group has 180 days to collect 315,000 valid signatures to place the measure on the ballot, a standard that has torpedoed many other ballot initiatives.
While volunteers can help, political analysts say successful ballot initiatives must pay at least $1 million to hire paid signature collectors. So far, Voters not Politicians has raised $10,000, although fundraising is in the early stages and Fahey hinted it may get major fundraising help.
She estimated the group might need to raise up to $2 million to get the initiative on the ballot.
“It’s incredibly difficult to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Michigan,” said Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a Lansing-based nonprofit campaign finance watchdog organization.
“Just to get the signatures and the campaign launched, you generally need about $1.5 million,” he added.
Mauger noted that a drive to repeal Michigan's prevailing wage law in 2016 failed to get enough signatures, even though it spent about $1.5 million on the effort. A push to put legalization of marijuana on the 2016 ballot also fell short of the needed signatures.
But Mauger noted that just getting on the ballot does not assure success. He pointed to the 2012 proposed amendment to require 25 percent renewable energy by 2025. It only gained 37.7 percent support, even though supporters spent $14.5 million on advertising and other costs. An opposition group raised $25.2 million.
At the Pentwater meeting, a self-described Democrat and his conservative father-in-law said they both agreed something should be done.
“I’ve been concerned about it for a while,” said Tim DeMumbrum, elected as a Democrat in 2016 as Muskegon County’s surveyor.
“It seems to me the party in control has been able to manipulate the system. They are choosing their own voters.”
His father-in-law, retiree Ed Schrand, said he has identified with Republicans most of his life. But Schrand said he doesn’t believe the political system in Michigan is working as it should these days. He put some blame on redistricting.
“It warps the whole political process. They are putting people in office who shouldn’t be there,” Schrand said.