One September morning, thirteen people from towns all across Michigan introduced themselves in a Zoom call. A pastor and former postal worker from Detroit. A mother of three college-age children in Battle Creek who has returned to college herself. A twenty-eight-year-old aspiring orthopedic surgeon in Orchard Lake. A resident of an intentional community in Lansing with experience in facilitation and cooperative living.
This was the first meeting of Michigan’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, a nonpartisan group of residents tasked with drawing Michigan’s new political maps, tracing the shape of power for the next ten years. The participants are part of a rising civic infrastructure for voting rights nationwide—a radical shift from the old way of doing things, in which elected leaders mapped out assembly/state house, senatorial, and congressional districts themselves. Organizers nationwide are keeping a close watch on the new commission. “Michigan is our current great hope,” said Jason Rhode, national coordinator of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.
For all that, the commission is still getting sorted. Some three months into the job, participants are dividing themselves into committees; hiring an executive director, communications director, and general counsel; developing a code of conduct; training on the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act; and dealing with all the other details that make a project like this one run. At the commission’s second meeting, after one motion passed unanimously, chair Steven Lett, an Interlochen attorney, declared, “Okay! So we have a meeting schedule!”
It’s not glamorous. But this is the brass tacks of a democracy movement. In a year when civic infrastructure has taken more than its share of hits, from post offices to schools to polling stations, it has perhaps never been more important.
Every ten years, informed by the latest census, U.S. states redraw their legislative districts. It’s a constitutional mandate. The process groups voters into geographical political units, which in turn elect representatives to Congress and state legislatures. And it matters—a lot. If you move the lines around—thanks, in part, to the extraordinary levels of racial and class segregation in the U.S., as well as hardened polarization—you can choose which demographics vote together in a district, shifting electoral power from one group to another.
Take the 39th House District in Oakland County, outside Detroit. A Democrat won the seat in 2008 and 2010. But, after the map was redrawn by a Republican legislature, in 2011, her home in West Bloomfield was cut out of the district and placed in one with firm Republican control. More conservative areas were drawn into the district, which has been represented by a Republican since the new map went into effect in 2012. (The former Democratic legislator is now the county clerk.)
When the cartographers are the legislators themselves—sometimes the governor is involved, too—they often draw lines that favor their own party, a practice known as "gerrymandering." “The simple truth is this: America is the only major democracy in the world that allows politicians to pick their own voters,” writes David Daley in Ratf**cked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, the go-to book on modern gerrymandering. Canada, for example, has districts drawn by Elections Canada, an independent nonpartisan agency that administers federal elections.
Gerrymandering gets its name from a former governor of Massachusetts. In 1812, Elbridge Gerry approved a map that drew state senate districts in contorted shapes that resembled the outline of a salamander, according to a newspaper cartoonist. It worked out just as he’d hoped. That year, the governor’s party won more than twice as many seats in the state senate as the opposing Federalist party, even though the Federalists won most of the votes.
In other words, gerrymandering is nearly as old as the nation itself; even Patrick Henry used it to challenge the rise of rival James Madison in 1788. But it’s only gotten more effective, powered by cutting-edge technology and data. The power of this political moneyball strategy was demonstrated by REDMAP—the Redistricting Majority Project. Conservative strategists, reckoning with big losses in the 2008 election, developed, as Daley put it, “the most strategic, large-scale, and well-funded campaign ever to redraw the political map coast to coast, with the express goal of locking in Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislative chambers for the next decade or more.”
With REDMAP, Republicans focused energy and money on statehouse races, including in Rust Belt swing states. It worked. In 2010, Republicans won 680 state legislature seats nationwide, flipping twenty legislative chambers in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin from blue to red.
Then, in 2011, based on the 2010 census, those Republican legislatures drew gerrymandered districts with dramatic results. The Ohio GOP, for example, won a supermajority in the state house in 2012, even though it didn’t have the most total votes statewide. It also won 75 percent of the U.S. House seats, despite receiving only 51 percent of the total vote. In Pennsylvania, over the next three election cycles, Democratic and Republican House candidates won about the same number of votes, but Republicans consistently won thirteen out of eighteen congressional seats.
Meanwhile, in Michigan, internal emails from Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce documented the intentions behind the last redistricting process. One aide to a suburban congressman wrote excitedly about lines that “cram ALL of the Dem garbage in Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland, and Macomb counties into only four districts.”
Gerrymandering isn’t an exclusively Republican strategy. In the last Illinois redistricting process, legislators diluted votes in the conservative suburbs of Chicago by parceling out segments of the city. Maryland is infamous for its extreme gerrymander, designed to shut out Republican leadership. Rhode also pointed to the long history of Democrats gerrymandering the South, especially post-Reconstruction.
No matter who is in charge, gerrymandering fuels partisanship. It alienates voters whose politics are on the outs with the party in control, of course, but it also fails voters who support it. When conservative and liberal voters are packed in with their own kind, primaries become the only meaningful contests, which gives disproportionate influence to fringe voters. And lawmakers who aren’t worried about re-election can more easily pass policies and budgets that aren’t in the interests of the people they represent.
Gerrymandering engenders “wide, cross-partisan disgust,” Rhode said. The idea of “a community of legislators drawing themselves into success” cuts against the ideals of basic fairness and fuels political cynicism. “We want people to know that gerrymandering is not a partisan issue,” Rhode added. “It’s a technical challenge, a bug in democracy, and it can be fixed.”
In the post-election haze of 2016, Nancy Wang was scrolling Facebook when she came across a widely circulating post by Katie Fahey, a twenty-seven-year-old woman from a village in Kent County: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan. If you’re interested in doing this as well please let me know. ”
Wang hardly had the time to join in. She taught at the University of Michigan. She was the mother of a five-year-old and an infant. “I wasn’t really looking to jump into a life-changing grassroots movement,” she said. “But it resonated with me.”
That was the beginning of Voters Not Politicians (VNP), which built a campaign for a more representative democracy based on Article 1, Section 1 of the Michigan constitution: “All political power is inherent to the people.” The group wanted to put a proposal on the ballot for an independent redistricting commission that would empower citizens, rather than legislators, to draw political boundaries.
Many volunteers, Wang said, “all dedicated basically full-time hours on top of what we are already doing.” (The documentary Slay the Dragon tells their story in-depth.) They taught themselves how to collect signatures for their petition to put the proposal on the ballot, and they used their own houses as landing places for signs and literature. They also learned how to craft a constitutional amendment. Wang led a policy committee of fifteen people—a librarian, a lactation consultant, students, and lawyers like herself. None of them had experience writing an amendment, not to mention one that would come under exacting scrutiny by those who, as Wang put it, “wanted to see us fail.”
To qualify for the ballot, organizers needed 315,000 petition signatures. While successful campaigns typically spend a million dollars or so to hire professionals who collect signatures, VNP was an all-volunteer effort—with eight thousand participants at its peak. They stood at farmer’s markets, rest stops, and wherever else people gathered in the pre-COVID days, and ended up with 428,000 signatures.
That caught the attention of opponents, who started pushing back hard. They created a group, Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution, funded mostly by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. It challenged the ballot proposal in court. VNP hired lawyers to respond, its first big purchase, and redirected the energy behind its field operations to face the legal battle. It won at the appeals court. Then the case headed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which was dominated by Republicans.
Gradually, VNP had become a force to be reckoned with. But many remained skeptical. “You could follow the Michigan coverage: ‘Who are these people? What is this weird group that is out there?’” Wang said. “You can see the pundits talking on TV: ‘I don't think this is going to happen.’”
Then, at the very end of its term, in July 2018, the state Supreme Court voted narrowly to keep the proposal on the ballot. “When we found out we won, we were shocked,” Wang said. “Shocked! Sometimes you just get a chance.”
“Of course,” she added, “that didn’t mean you won the election.”
The Michigan reformers weren’t the only ones tackling gerrymandering from a structural angle. A couple of pending legal cases had many hoping that a federal Supreme Court decision would rein in the practice. But the first case, about the Wisconsin map, ended in 2018 with the justices ruling that the plaintiffs (the reformers) didn’t have standing. The second case, about maps in North Carolina and Maryland, ended in 2019, with the Supreme Court ruling 5-4 against the challengers. In the majority opinion, Justice John Roberts wrote that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”
In lieu of federal intervention, organizers are moving state by state. The success of a state-level commission in California offered inspiration. Gerrymandering by Democratic legislators was routine until an independent team of citizens took over the task in the last redistricting period. “Ten years later,” Rhode said, “there’s a balanced budget, higher approval ratings for the legislature, more legislation passed, a better political climate, less polarization. . . Both parties and independents say it’s been a complete sea change.”
In Michigan, after the proposal for the redistricting commission made the ballot, Voters Not Politicians had about three months to persuade midterm voters to support Proposal 2. Unfamiliarity was a problem. Research showed that most people hadn’t heard of either VNP or gerrymandering. Fortunately, big donors finally started to support the campaign. About $15 million came through, largely from out-of-state groups. There were also endorsements by well-known people and organizations, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Republican governor of California, and the Sierra Club. Meanwhile, another opposition group emerged, using radio and television advertisements that argued Proposal 2 was too complicated and would give a “blank check” to an unelected commission.
Back home, organizers led an education effort ahead of the election, including broadcast ads and thirty-three town halls in thirty-three days. Katie Fahey and the leader of an opposition group had seven debates. Volunteers joked that if they had twenty seconds with a person, they could turn them into a supporter of Proposal 2. “It’s that easy when you do any kind of good governance, nonpartisan work,” Wang said.
Proposal 2 passed with 61 percent of the vote. (No other Michigan ballot initiative put forward by a citizen campaign has ever won on its first attempt, according to Wang.) And, in the same election, Michigan voters passed Proposal 3, which, among other things, made same-day registration and no-reason absentee voting possible. Together, the referendums were a dramatic expansion of voting rights.
But the fight wasn’t over. In 2020, as the Secretary of State administered the selection process for the redistricting commission—with seats for five Republicans, five Democrats, and six independents—two lawsuits tried to block it. The consolidated case, with the Michigan Republican Party and the director of an opposition group as two of the plaintiffs, argued that the commission was unconstitutional because it barred elected officials, political candidates, lobbyists, and their family members from participating. That violated their First Amendment rights, they claimed. The GOP also argued that, since the commission allows participants to declare a party affiliation without getting the approval of the party, it violated parties’ freedom of association.
A federal judge dismissed the case in July. A month later, the members of Michigan’s first independent redistricting commission were announced and got to work.
In the glow of victory, Voters Not Politicians considered shutting down. Against incredible odds, it had done what it set out to do. But it decided to transition instead from a campaign to a nonprofit, in order to see the redistricting process through in this cycle and the next, and to play a watchdog role regarding Proposal 2’s transparency requirements.
It held town halls to recruit applicants to the commission, with notaries on hand so people could apply right there. It also spread the word about safe voting practices during a pandemic. “We felt there was a room for a grassroots movement that is nonpartisan [and] that speaks to voters across the spectrum,” said Wang, who became the executive director. The former litigator is learning about things like building coalitions, and how to weigh taking on one issue over another. “I love it. It’s fascinating. I love this job.”
The thirteen members of the new commission emerged from a pool of 9,367 complete applications. As they introduced themselves to each other on the morning of their first meeting, livestreamed over Zoom, they shared little stories from their lives and their reasons for being here. “To me, there’s no other way to kind of define those core values and standards that I live by, to be able to represent our peers, and to do things in a way that could be more just and fair moving forward, to set the tone for a great political environment in the state of Michigan” said commissioner Brittni Kellom of Detroit. Commissioner Dustin Witjes, of Ypsilanti, added, “I want to just make sure everything is done fairly, not only for the next ten years but for future generations to come.”
Michigan wasn’t the only redistricting campaign that won in 2018. Missouri passed the "Clean Missouri" amendment—but it was overturned earlier this month by a small margin. Redistricting was on the 2020 ballot in Virginia, after a two-year battle by reformers involving legislation to create redistricting criteria. Virginians decisively voted for the new constitutional amendment to create a bipartisan commission of citizens and lawmakers to draw district lines.
The coronavirus pandemic has slowed the anti-gerrymandering movement elsewhere. In Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Oregon, campaigns to put redistricting commissions on the 2020 ballot fizzled out, according to Rhode, as social distancing precautions made it near impossible to gather enough signatures by the mandated timelines.
The next round of redistricting ends in 2022. Wang encourages those who want to take on gerrymandering to begin by connecting with others locally who feel the same way. “People will tell you not to do it without a lot of money or expertise,” she said. “We were told that a lot. ‘Who are you? You’re not an expert.’ They do that because they don’t want you to be successful and don’t want you to try.”
Local projects can also take inspiration from, and build coalitions with, national groups that are strengthening the infrastructure of democracy. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project will transition into an electoral innovation lab, expanding its focus to include additional models of democratic participation, such as ranked choice voting, open primaries, and mail-in voting. It already hosts resources like Representable.org, which is a tool for communities to experiment with drawing their own boundaries.
Voters Not Politicians wants to keep contributing to that movement. “Don’t be shy to reach out,” Wang said, adding “We really are at a turning point in this country where voters understand how our political system is being manipulated to serve the interests of politicians and special interests.”
Rhode agrees. He imagines how it worked in the old days: a bunch of powerful men trading votes and voters, consolidating power in cigar-filled rooms. Gerrymandering reform aims to return that power to the people. We are “on the cusp of a new era of progressive reform in American history,” Rhode said. “What that will require is active and engaged citizenry.”
Wayne State University associate political science professor Kevin Deegan-Krause uses Legos to demonstrate gerrymandering. (Tom Perkins, Metro Times)