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Katie Fahey never envisioned becoming a political activist. But in the months following the 2016 election, she found herself leading a crew of earnest, if nonexpert, volunteers united in one cause: ending partisan gerrymandering in Michigan. The age-old practice of drawing congressional district maps to favor one political party or the other has become a hot topic of late. At least eight cases involving partisan gerrymandering are working their way through courts nationwide, and redistricting reform measures are on the November ballot in six states. In Michigan, Ms. Fahey’s group, Voters Not Politicians, held dozens of town hall meetings and stayed up nights researching and writing a ballot measure to create an independent citizen commission that would draw a new congressional map after the 2020 Census. “The main thing we kept hearing was that people wanted a fair system, an impartial system,” Fahey says. Still, some aren’t buying it. In an interview with The Atlantic, Tony Daunt, director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, dismisses the idea of truly nonpartisan redistricting, and points to Voters Not Politicians’ ties to Democratic organizations. “It’s a political process,” Mr. Daunt tells the magazine. “This idea that you can take politics out of politics is silly.”
The post that changed Katie Fahey’s life came to her a couple of days after the 2016 presidential election.
The campaign’s corrosive atmosphere and its divisive result had left Ms. Fahey troubled. She wanted to find a positive focus – and bring a sense of empowerment back to her community.
So before leaving for the office that morning, she shot off a note on Facebook. “ ‘Hey, I want to take on gerrymandering in Michigan,’ ” she recalls writing. “ ‘If you want to help, let me know. Smiley face.’ ”
By the end of that day, dozens of people were volunteering to help. Within three months, she had organized a team, formed a ballot question committee, and started collecting signatures. Today, Fahey works full time as executive director of Voters Not Politicians, a nonprofit dedicated to creating an independent redistricting commission for the state of Michigan.
“I accidentally started a movement with a Facebook post,” she says with a grin.
It’s not surprising Fahey’s message resonated. The shock of the 2016 election, combined with the public’s growing frustration with government, has revived political activism across the country. Over the past two years, massive multi-city protests have taken place over a range of hot-button issues. Record numbers of female, minority, and first-time candidates – convinced they need to step up against injustice and apathy – are seeking office in November’s midterms.
In this activist atmosphere, redistricting reform has found new traction. For folks like Fahey, partisan gerrymandering – the practice of drawing legislative and congressional district maps to increase or maintain the power of a political party – has become a symbol of a rigged system that rewards the powerful and disregards the will of the people.
And now they’re working to fight it.
As of September, there were at least eight cases involving partisan gerrymandering working their way through courts nationwide – including one in Fahey’s home state of Michigan. Redistricting reform measures are also on the November ballot in six states, and campaigns in two more are calling on their legislatures to amend their state constitutions. In May, Ohio voters passed State Issue 1, which requires bipartisan collaboration in redrawing congressional district maps. The new process – a compromise amendment among Democrats, Republicans, and the state’s Fair Districts = Fair Elections Coalition – is set to start in 2021.
“It’s part of a larger movement nationally for people who are dissatisfied with elections in general and want the election process to be different,” says Josh Altic, director of the Ballot Measures Project at Ballotpedia. “Gerrymandering has been identified as a key element of that dissatisfaction.”
Maximizing partisan advantage
Redistricting has always been a main feature of the US democratic process. Under the Constitution, the Census Bureau must update the population count every 10 years. States – often through their legislatures – are given the chance to redraw legislative and congressional district maps to reflect the new figures. Often, the majority party will design those maps to its advantage.
The Supreme Court has not found partisan gerrymandering to be unconstitutional, although it has ruled that extreme versions of it could be. (In June, the Court once again passed on the option to define what would constitute “extreme.”)
But the Court has struck down racial gerrymandering – and the growing correlation between partisanship and race has led some to argue that partisan gerrymandering often has racial implications.
Over the years, the practice has led to districts so engineered they’ve lost all sensible shape – and, critics say, to elections that lead to preordained partisan results. Even though North Carolina voters are fairly evenly split along party lines, for instance, the GOP currently controls 10 of the state’s 13 House districts. Democrats have done the same in Maryland, where House Republicans received 37 percent of the vote in 2016 but won only one of the state’s eight seats.
In Michigan, a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters and a group of Democrats alleges that the state’s 2011 redistricting process was unconstitutional and the boundaries must be redrawn. “Republicans weaponized the restricting process in order to target and dilute Democratic votes,” reads a motion filed last Friday. “The results have proved durable and powerful for Republicans, but they have meanwhile undermined the most fundamental and cherished rights in our democracy.”
Calls to end, or at least rein in, partisan gerrymandering have been around for decades. Catherine Turcer, who heads one of the Ohio nonprofits behind State Issue 1, began her crusade in the late 1990s, when only a handful of groups saw redistricting reform as a cause worth fighting for. “You couldn’t even call it a coalition,” she says. “We had hearings ... but to even get redistricting reform on a legislative agenda was a really difficult thing.”
The struggle continued through the 2000s, as Common Cause Ohio – Ms. Turcer’s organization – helped get measures on the ballot that would reform the process at the state legislative and congressional levels. After a failed citizen initiative in 2012, Ohio voters in 2015 approved a constitutional amendment to form a bipartisan redistricting commission for the state legislature.
And then 2016 happened.
In its wake, Turcer sent out an email asking folks if they were interested in working to make elections more meaningful. “Nine hundred and eight people signed up,” she says. “I remember that number exactly.”
“We were already on this path,” Turcer adds. But after the election, “there were many, many people who wanted to push back against things they saw that were violations of norms, or things that just struck folks as wrong.”
Taking the politics out of politics?
Unlike Turcer, Fahey is relatively new to the game. She’s young – not yet 30 – and until this spring, when she quit to manage Voters Not Politicians full time, she worked as a program manager for a recycling nonprofit.
But gerrymandering, to her, felt like the right issue to take on. It offended people’s sense of fairness, regardless of which party they were aligned with.
In the months following her Facebook post, Fahey brought together a group of earnest, if non-expert, volunteers. There were lawyers, doctors, a retired mailman, a birthing doula, a pastor. They held dozens of town hall meetings and stayed up nights researching and writing a ballot measure to create an independent citizen commission that would draw a new congressional map for Michigan after the 2020 census.
The result was Proposal 2. Under the measure, the commission would consist of four representatives from each major party and five who self-identify as unaffiliated. They would be selected from a pool of eligible applicants by the Michigan secretary of state, with state lawmakers from each party allowed a set number of strikes, like attorneys in jury selection. Elected officials or candidates and their close relatives would be automatically ineligible. The commission would ultimately be required to draw a map that reflects the state’s racial and political diversity.
“The main thing we kept hearing was that people wanted a fair system, an impartial system, and a system that was transparent and they could participate in,” Fahey says. “We tried to take all of that very, very seriously and incorporate as much of that as we could into the final product.”
Some aren’t buying it. In an interview with The Atlantic, Tony Daunt, director of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, dismisses the idea of a truly nonpartisan, impartial system. He points to Voters Not Politicians’ ties to Democratic organizations like former Obama attorney general Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which donated $250,000 to the group. “It’s a political process,” Mr. Daunt tells the magazine. “This idea that you can take politics out of politics is silly.”
The Michigan Oak Initiative, a Christian political organization, handed out flyers opposing Prop 2 at the state Republican Party Convention in August. Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, backed by the state Chamber of Commerce, fought the proposal in court. (They lost.) As of the end of September, voters favored the measure 48 to 32 percent, with 20 percent still undecided, according to an EPIC/MRA poll.
There’s also not a lot of data about how effective independent commissions actually are at preventing excessive partisan gerrymandering. Studies are mixed over whether California, one of the few states that relies on a commission to draw its maps, has been able to mitigate partisan influence over its redistricting process. Another report found that while Prop 2 could increase transparency and competitiveness, it could also make the redistricting process slower and more expensive.
Some critics question whether partisan gerrymandering is an issue worth tackling at all. There’s research to suggest that the problem is not as ubiquitous as it seems, and that voters’ own geographical sorting – choosing to live in communities with like-minded people – plays a bigger role than partisan redistricting in intensifying polarization and leading to uncompetitive elections.
And the shape of a district doesn’t always indicate how competitive it is, political analysts John Sides and Eric McGhee point out. Think Berkeley, Calif. – a district that looks “normal” in the sense that it retains the integrity of a community boundary, but is politically homogenous anyway.
“The maps are a factor,” says Tom Sutton, a political scientist who runs the Community Research Institute at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. “But another factor is turnout. How much should you focus on maps versus voter mobilization?”
A sense that the system isn’t working
Redistricting reform, in other words, comes with plenty of skepticism. The wave of interest surrounding it, however, reflects a pair of driving factors marking this political moment: a sense among the public that the system isn’t working, and also that they – regular people – can and should try to fix it.
“We’re paying attention,” says Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies civic engagement. “We are living in a moment of heightened awareness of what’s going on in this country, both right and left. That’s good. That’s how politics works.”
Nancy Wang, a law professor who was one of the first to join Fahey’s cause, says Voters Not Politicians showed her the power that average people have to hold officials – and the system – to account. “I’m not happy with either party. I’m sick of the games they play with each other,” she says. “I really never imagined that a normal person, a non-professional in this space, could do what I’m doing right now ... that we could do something other than complain.”
Back in Lansing, Fahey gets ready to leave for her next appointment. These days she’s got an assistant to help manage her schedule, and she’s already running late. But she pauses for a question about her post-election plans. If Proposal 2 succeeds, the group has its work cut out for it: They’ll have to launch a new campaign, telling Michiganders about the commission, how they can get on it, why it’s important to the state and its citizens.
If the proposal doesn’t get enough ‘Yes’ votes, Fahey says, then that just means they’ll be spending two more years trying to get a new measure through. “It’ll be a shame because there’s a ton of momentum [now],” she says. “But it won’t stop us. It can’t.”
Previous articles in this series: A system under strain: Is US democracy showing real cracks? and Neutral no more: Can the Supreme Court survive an era of extreme partisanship?