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One woman’s Facebook post leads to Michigan vote against gerrymandering

Two days after the 2016 elections, 27-year-old Katie Fahey’s social world was roiling with fury.

Sitting in her kitchen in West Michigan, Fahey logged into her Facebook account and scrolled through post after post in which friends and family members — even those who usually sought civility — tore into one another. The frustrations peppering her computer screen all reflected, to some degree, a distrust of the political system. “So if that’s really it,” she recalls thinking, “why don’t we start there?”

So shortly before 9 a.m., Fahey, a political novice, began typing. “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan,” she began. “If you’re interested in doing this as well please let me know.” She added a smiley face emoji.

Related: Proposal to end gerrymandering resonated in red and blue Michigan
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Related: Gerrymandered districts help Republicans keep control of Michigan Legislature

Within hours, Fahey had created a Facebook group accepting new members by the minute. Within weeks, she’d organized volunteers to develop a statewide strategy. Within a few months, her volunteer army had collected over 400,000 signatures to put redistricting reform on the Michigan ballot.

And on Tuesday, two years after that pleading Facebook post, Michigan voters validated that plea. They handed Fahey’s group, Voters Not Politicians, a resounding, improbable victory that promises no less than the transformation of how politics is played in this ideologically divided state.

“I knew we could do it. It feels right. It feels perfect,” Fahey told Bridge moments after learning Proposal 2 passed, her voice cracking. “I feel like I believe in democracy still, because part of starting this and doing it this way was a belief that the people could come together and actually make change happen and we have. And that’s dope.”

Bill Ballenger, a longtime Lansing political commentator and former lawmaker, could find no antecedent to Fahey’s victory. “I think what she did was remarkable, unprecedented in recent Michigan political history,” he said. “There’s never been anything like it.”

One last trek

As Tuesday dawned, the ringleader of Michigan’s redistricting movement sat in her kitchen draped in American flag onesie pajamas. The dining room table was littered with the detritus of a long campaign — portraits of Fahey and a quilted map of Michigan crafted by volunteers; flyers put out by her group, which had been defaced by opponents and dropped into the mailbox outside her Caledonia home.

Fahey swapped the onesie for a blazer and slung on glittery gold high heels she’d first worn over a year ago to conduct the first of 33 town halls. A half hour later, Fahey, now 29, arrived at her voting precinct, her assistant Jenny McCullen alongside her and Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” blasting from tiny iPhone speakers.

Fahey sat down to complete her ballot. When she got to Proposal 2, she let out a soft “hell yeah.”  

“I was like high-fiving the ballot,” she said as she and McCullen walked back to their Dodge Caravan, an airport rental they’d wrapped in Voters Not Politicians blue and pink.

It was still early, and Fahey was headed across the state for one last day of campaigning.  

She would visit campaign offices in Grand Rapids, Lansing and Detroit. At each stop, volunteers whooped and asked Fahey about her next act.  

“When are you going to run for office?” one volunteer asked.  

“I hate politics,” she responded, with a laugh.

As the van headed east, people across Michigan were stepping into booths near their own homes, voting for senators, representatives and congressional members according to legislative lines drawn by the party in power in Lansing, a system Michigan shares with 36 other states.

Over the last two 10-year redistricting cycles, that majority party has been the Republicans. And if past is prelude, when the final votes are counted this year Democrats will have about as many or more votes than Republicans across the state yet still remain the minority party in Lansing.  

With VNP’s victory Tuesday, the power to draw district boundaries will be taken away from the dominant political party and put in the hands of a 13-person citizens commission made up of four self-identified Republicans, four self-identified Democrats and five people who are unaffiliated with either major party. After every decennial census (the next one is 2020), the commission will conduct at least 15 public hearings to gather input on the maps before voting across party lines to determine which neighborhoods fall into which voting districts across the state.

That’s the plan, anyway, though critics of Proposal 2, including many from Michigan’s business establishment and GOP insiders, contend the path forged by Fahey’s group remains susceptible to political chicanery.

Humble beginnings

Fahey said she first learned about partisan gerrymandering in elementary school and knew other states took a different route to drawing political maps, a process known as redistricting. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, a vein of distrust seemed to run through her friends and family’s social media vitriol. Fair, politically neutral district lines and the idea that each vote counts, she concluded, were fundamental to restoring that trust.

Before her Facebook post, Fahey was a program manager at the Michigan Recycling Coalition. On the side, she was a member of two improv troupes and was working toward an online sustainable business MBA from Marylhurst University in Oregon.

She said she’d never worked in politics, let alone run a campaign staffed by thousands of volunteers who would eventually raise more than $15 million. But Fahey appeared to slide into her leadership role like a well-worn mitt. She can be charmingly goofy, but her demeanor is undercut by a simmering fury toward a system she views as rigged and unfair. She’s prone to greet volunteers with “Ready to save democracy?”

As strangers joined her Facebook group, they swore allegiance to three principles: They were to represent themselves, not an organization, political party or legislator; they were to keep internal deliberations private, and their mission would be to end gerrymandering and not to advantage one party over another. Fahey said she strictly moderated the discussion to focus on that goal — so, for instance, there would be no trashing or lauding the new president.

“The Internet was pretty ugly after the election,” Fahey said. “I wanted one place to focus on action and not on the back-and-forth quibble.”

Job one was to create an inventory of volunteers using Google Sheets, so the group could document people’s schedules and skills. Before the first week was over, she’d organized a conference call with more than 50 new volunteers. Within two weeks, the group’s main committees — policy, field operations, fundraising, education, communications and outreach — and their leaders came into focus.

They talked to political scientists, researched systems in other states and reviewed past efforts to change redistricting to figure out the best path to changing Michigan’s system. They settled on pursuing a ballot measure.

The group held more than 30 town halls across the state to get input from voters on how (or whether) they’d like Michigan’s system to change. They conducted extensive surveys written by Davia Downey, then the group’s outreach coordinator.

It took just over three months to form a Voters Not Politicians ballot committee. In those early days, the group was not blessed with money. A portion of their funding took the form of modest in-kind donations — duct tape, pens, flyers. One contribution is listed as, “I BOUGHT 20 FOAM BOARDS AT $1 EACH.”

Under state law, Voters Not Politicians had to collect roughly 315,000 valid signatures within 180 days to get on the 2018 ballot. Usually such efforts cost $1-2 million because they require groups to hire professionals to aggressively solicit signatures. Fahey’s group had no ready benefactor.

Michael Li, an expert in redistricting at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at the New York University School of Law, told Bridge that when VNP first formed, national donors had no interest in throwing money at a group filled with nobodies that had little chance of success.

“People recognize that there were problems in Michigan, that Michigan had sort of broken politics (and) one person told me ‘Michigan is where good ideas go to die,’” Li said. “‘You just don't get things done in Michigan because people fight with each other, you can't put together the coalition, it’s too complicated a state.’”

Those hurdles were not lost on Fahey. “We always knew we didn’t have money,” she said. “We were a campaign of scarcity.”  

They’d been told they would be outspent 10 to one by supporters of the status quo. But the group put its faith in a network of volunteers organized by Jamie Lyons-Eddy, the field team director. She divided Michigan into 14 districts, each with a field director responsible for recruiting “captains” for local teams. The captains recruited their own volunteers.

Somehow, VNP blew past the 315,000 signatures needed, turning in more than 400,000 petition signatures in fewer than the 180 days allotted.

It was the effort of those volunteers, showing up seemingly everywhere across Michigan, collecting signatures, knocking on doors, calling voters and holding educational town halls that Fahey kept thinking back on as she worked through Election Day.  

“I knew we were doing it the right way when I first heard somebody say ‘our’ campaign to end gerrymandering,” Fahey said. She had come to conclude that the rancor she saw following the 2016 election had come from people putting their faith in individual politicians to fix everything.

“One person can’t,” Fahey said Tuesday. “Seeing everybody crying over their ballots today made me feel that way again. They know they were their own saviors.”

John Chamberlin, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, called the all-volunteer signature campaign “an extraordinary accomplishment.” Chris Thomas, the former state elections director, said it’s nearly unprecedented — in the last 40 years, the only other group able to get an issue on the ballot with all volunteer signature collectors were pro-life activists.

“The fact that it was without much of an organization and without much money, I think they might have gotten taken too lightly by people who ended up opposing Prop 2,” Chamberlin said.

Laying in wait

Fahey’s group had cleared its first hurdle. But it faced an entrenched and well-armed opposition. Republican consultants and lawyers had been at work for more than two decades shaping Michigan’s political system to favor party candidates in state and federal legislative races. Working with representatives from the powerful Michigan Chamber of Commerce, they’d outflanked state Democrats in the 2000s.

As revealed in private emails unearthed by Bridge from a pending federal lawsuit, Michigan Republicans worked meticulously to pack Democratic voters into a limited number of districts in 2011 to maintain overall GOP majorities.

In one email, a GOP staffer bragged about cramming “Dem garbage” into southeast Michigan congressional districts. In another, a staffer lauded the 9th Congressional District in Macomb County as “giving the finger to (Democratic U.S. Representative) Sandy Levin. I love it.”

The Republican plan proved very effective: New boundaries drawn after the 2010 U.S. Census gave Republicans an edge in four additional seats in the state House, one additional seat in the state Senate and a 9-5 advantage in the U.S. Congress. Those boundaries also strengthened the party’s hold in districts already friendly to Republicans.

Which is why, while Michigan is nearly evenly divided between Democratic and Republican voters, Republican legislators have held sizeable majorities in both state chambers and in its congressional delegation.

Wounded, but never dead

As VNP shifted focus this year from collecting signatures to educating the public about gerrymandering and how to end it, the group’s opponents mobilized legal challenges.

They formed a group, Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, which challenged the proposed ballot measure in the Michigan Court of Appeals. CPMC, funded primarily by the Michigan Chamber, argued that the redistricting proposal would change too many things about the state constitution to be decided by ballot.

VNP had its own lawyers: Attorneys who had donated more than $100,000 of their time to draft the ballot petition. But when the legal challenges began, VNP made its first big purchase — hiring lawyers at Fraser Trebilcock to defend the ballot measure. The group survived the appeals challenge and then this summer a second challenge before the Republican dominated Michigan Supreme Court, finally securing Prop 2’s place on the November ballot.

Fahey shrieked with joy when she learned of the ruling from the Voters Not Politicians Twitter account. It was a burst of good news following weeks of uncertainty.

As the Supreme Court showdown unfolded, big donors remained unwilling to pitch in without knowing whether Prop 2 would be on the ballot. VNP field operations ground to a halt as the group diverted all its funds into legal defense. Volunteers were still willing to give their time and money to continue the campaign, but Fahey feared the possibility that resentment could creep in among the ranks.  

“Knowing we were in court, how do you justify paying for anything else when if you get thrown off the ballot none of it matters?” Fahey said. “So that was really hard. It was hard on morale.”

Tapping the money spigot

The state Supreme Court’s ruling boosted more than morale.

In the final three months of the campaign, Voters Not Politicians transformed from a primarily grassroots-funded organization to a $15 million behemoth funded mainly by out-of-state liberal groups. Millions of dollars rolled in from organizations that weren’t required to disclose their donors, for which Fahey made no apologies.

“At the end of the day,” Fahey told Bridge at the time, “when you’re up against other dark money, we don’t want to lose because we can’t fund a campaign.”

Small individual donations were suddenly being joined by endorsements from celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jennifer Lawrence. It was a far cry from the early months of scraping by; Fahey’s group was flush.  

Protect My Vote, the opposition committee funded by the Michigan Freedom Fund that formed after Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution faded away, poured their own millions into animated advertisements and radio spots to convince voters that Prop 2 was overly confusing and susceptible to abuse.  

Fahey, meanwhile, held seven debates with Tony Daunt, executive director of the Freedom Fund. She and McCullen, her assistant, were driving to one of the debates in Fahey’s mom’s minivan in October when they hit a deer carcass in the road, totalling the vehicle and paving the way for the brightly-colored Dodge Caravan the pair rode on Election Day.

The opposition ads frustrated Fahey, but they were expected. What she didn’t expect was pressure from environmental and social justice groups that wanted to join VNP’s efforts but expected some influence over how the redistricting campaign functioned. Fahey said some of these groups tried to pressure VNP to wait until 2020 to mount the ballot initiative, perhaps concerned that Prop 2 would bring neutrality to redistricting decisions just as progressive groups gained their own power in Lansing.

“That’s when it was clear to me we needed to be our own group,” Fahey said. “They wanted to see how (the 2018 election) panned out to see who got to gerrymander next. And we were not about that.”

In the end, political observers say the biggest surprise was just how easily VNP navigated its way to victory this fall.  

Sarah Hubbard, principal of Lansing-based lobbying firm Acuitas, said business leaders, who might have otherwise been the largest funders of an opposition campaign, backed away from the issue after pro-Prop 2 groups began targeting board members of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce in attack ads.

“My sense is that they decided it wasn’t their battle to fight necessarily and that the downside reputational risk was too great,” Hubbard said. “Who else is going to come up with the money? There’s not a grassroots movement in support of gerrymandering out there.”

In past elections, business-related groups launched “just vote no” campaigns to defeat a variety of initiatives. But Ballenger, the political analyst, said those groups were easily outmaneuvered by Fahey’s group this year. “I don’t think Protect My vote operated with quite the speed and efficiency that the ‘no’ forces operated with six years ago,” he said.

The final lap

Minutes before polls closed on election night, four days short of two years since her Facebook post, Fahey stood outside a Detroit precinct wearing a hat made of “Yes on 2” stickers, still trying to sway the sentiments of voters. “Thank you for voting, you democracy warrior!” she called to two strangers leaving the precinct.

One woman arrived a minute after the polls closed. Fahey encouraged her to try to get in anyway. She then stood at the doors as the evening darkened, peering through the plexiglass to see if the woman had made it.

“We’ve done everything we can do,” she said as she piled back into the van. “That feels so liberating.”

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