You can’t really pick an issue that’s more inside baseball than gerrymandering. And yet remarkably, this has inspired the most genuine grassroots political effort I’ve seen in Michigan.
Before Christmas, a group called Voters Not Politicians turned in 425,000 signatures for a ballot initiative that would create an independent citizen commission to draw legislative districts in Michigan instead of the Legislature. The group will need 315,654 of those signatures to be valid in order to get the measure on the 2018 ballot.
You’d think most non-political junkies never think twice about gerrymandering, which establishes an advantage for a political party by manipulating district boundaries.
But you’d be wrong.
The playbook for getting questions on the Michigan ballot is well-established. First, raise $1 million. (With Gov. Snyder signing a 2016 law tightening up the timeframe for the signature-gathering process, banking $2 million in advance is helpful). Then you pay people to circulate petitions across the state, an arduous process.
Voters Not Politicians broke the rules. They raised about $130,000 as of August and launched an all-volunteer effort, finding folks lining up to sign petitions from Detroit to Holland and everywhere in between.
Many of the petition circulators had never attended a political rally or a party meeting. But crusading against gerrymandering — which might seem to be the ultimate pie-in-the-sky effort — has attracted people from across the political spectrum who want more of a say in their government.
In other words, Voters Not Politicians has become what the Clean Michigan Government part-time legislature effort launched by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley advertised itself as being: A groundswell of regular people sick of politics and government as usual. That petition drive, in contrast, has been plagued with problems and was turned over to far-right ideologues Tom McMillin and Dave Agema after it served its true purpose, launching Calley’s 2018 gubernatorial bid.
Here’s how the current redistricting process currently works. After each decennial census, the Michigan Legislature is charged with redrawing the boundaries for the state House, state Senate and Congress based on shifts in population. And the governor has to sign the new plan.
So in the case of the state Legislature, you literally have politicians being able to pick their voters. I have watched staffers go block by block to find the “right” mix of voters for their boss’ district (i.e. enough Democrats or Republicans to keep them “safe”). The first rule of redistricting is politicians protect their jobs.
It’s also a partisan process by design. For the last two redistricting cycles in 2001 and 2011, Republicans have controlled everything, as they held the governorship, both chambers of the Legislature and even had a majority on the state Supreme Court, which could be counted on to rule in favor of the GOP’s maps.
Not surprisingly, Republicans have drawn districts that favor GOP majorities in the state Legislature and Congress. It’s paid off handsomely. Consider 2014, a good Republican year in which Snyder was re-elected. Republicans won a 63-47 majority in the state House, a 27-11 majority in the state Senate and maintained their 9-5 majority in the congressional delegation.
But when Inside Michigan Politics examined statewide votes, it wasn’t exactly a red tsunami. Democrats won a majority of the statewide vote for state House races and a plurality of votes for Congress. Republicans won a narrow statewide vote majority for the state Senate.
And yet Republicans ended up with bone-crushing majorities in all three bodies. That was by design.
It’s true that some areas are heavily Republican, like Allegan County, or overwhelmingly Democratic, like Detroit. It’s impossible to draw competitive districts there and it wouldn’t represent voters to do so. However, it would be pretty painless to draw dozens more districts that didn’t favor one party or the other. But right now, there’s little incentive — from either party — to do so.
Voters Not Politicians proposes a process controlled by a 13-member body would be composed of Democrats, Republicans and independents who don’t have a stake in the outcome. After covering redistricting in Iowa, which has a similar framework, I can say that it’s not a perfect process but it’s far superior to what goes on in Michigan and other states.
Not surprisingly, Republicans have been quick to slam the ballot measure as a stalking horse for Democrats, as several board members have given to Dem candidates. Republicans feel they’ve got a good shot at running the show for the 2021 redistricting process, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Of course, with Democrats winning a slew of special legislative races and big victories in Virginia and New Jersey this year, that’s not exactly a guaranteed outcome. And there’s a Supreme Court case that could also upend Michigan’s redistricting process.
It wouldn’t be shocking for the GOP-controlled Legislature to try and throw a monkey wrench into anti-gerrymandering efforts. Republicans could pass a proposal of their own that would appear on the ‘18 ballot and muddy the waters, for instance.
This fight is just beginning.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.