Voters Not Politicians looks to end Michigan gerrymandering

Wednesday, September 20, 2017 - 7:03pm

A Michigan grassroots organization, Voters Not Politicians, is petitioning to end gerrymandering in the state through a constitutional amendment to appear on the 2018 November ballot. The amendment, if passed, would put an independent citizens’ redistricting commission in place to redraw state legislative and congressional districts.

The group needs just under 316,000 valid signatures by Feb. 13, 2018 to get the amendment on the 2018 ballot. Currently, it has 115,000 signatures, with at least one signature in every county of the state. The group had its ballot language approved in August.

The commission will comprise 13 commissioners, of which will include four Democrats, four Republicans and five independent voters.

Katie Fahey started the group after posting on Facebook that she wanted to end gerrymandering and asked if anyone wanted to join her, according to Amelia Quilon, marketing and communications director. The post gained a great deal of momentum before it culminated into Voters Not Politicians.

Recently, Bridge Magazine tested how many votes are wasted in Michigan through gerrymandering, calculating what it called an “efficiency gap.” The test found Michigan Republicans were favored by 15.5 percent in Congress and 10.1 percent in the state house in the 2016 elections.

In Michigan, electoral districts are redrawn following each census. The party in power in the state legislature, which has been the Republicans in recent years, then draws the districts.

Quilon explained the motive for starting the nonpartisan group, the desire to build a voter system which fairly represents Michigan voters.

“Michigan has been, in recent history at least, very split, 50-50. It’s one of the closest states in the country. But our representation sent to Lansing and to D.C. doesn’t reflect that,” Quilon said. “We’re finding that voters are going to the polls and saying that I want a Republican and I want a Democrat. It’s pretty equal, but we’re sending more of one party so we’re not really getting that equal representation that a state is supposed to get.”

Public Policy senior Rowan Conybeare, chair of the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Democrats, wrote in an email interview gerrymandering has a big impact on who is elected and while it is a problem in Michigan, it is present across the country.

“Gerrymandering is a serious problem all across the country,” Conybeare wrote. “Partisan lawmakers draw district lines with the sole intent of reelection. Instead, a nonpartisan commission should draw district lines, taking the politics out of the process. This would allow citizens to elect legislators who are truly representative of their values and beliefs.”

The University’s chapter of College Republicans did not respond to requests for comment.

Washtenaw County clerk Lawrence Kestenbaum explained how gerrymandering affects elections and the impact this proposed amendment would make if it were passed. 

“Basically the party that controls the process, they do what they can to concentrate the opposing party into as few districts as possible and then spread majorities of the party drawing the district across as many districts as possible,” Kestenbaum said. “Now, in the past that has been sort of a chancy proposition because in effect you’re counting on voters to behave the way you expect them to.”

It wasn’t long ago that districts couldn’t be gerrymandered because of the lack of predictability among voters. Today though, voters by and large stay in line with their historical voting patterns.

“What’s happened in the past 20 to 30 years is that people, as the country has gotten more polarized and more partisan, voters have gotten more predictable,” Kestenbaum said. “The possibility of an upset by a minority party in some district is a lot more remote than it used to be.”

While Kestenbaum supports the proposal, he has reservations in the possible results. While in theory it may be easy to redraw districts in a way that doesn’t favor one party or the other, there are several other considerations.

“There’s a tradeoff between you want it done in a way that doesn’t advantage parties, but you want it done in a way that doesn’t run against the interest of the communities,” Kestenbaum said. “So it’s a complicated issue.”

Quilon included, many of the volunteers collecting signatures have received positive reactions from supporters.

“I think they’re getting a pretty broad range of responses,” Quilon said. “So we’ve had some circulators say, ‘this person had no idea what gerrymandering was but I explained very briefly, and they were like, wow, that doesn’t seem fair, that doesn’t make sense. Is that why I don’t feel like my vote matters?’ And they wanted to sign right away, and we’ve seen that across party lines.”

Kestenbaum expects there to be opposition to the amendment from Republicans, but doesn’t foresee them being successful.

“Once it’s on the ballot, I think it’s very likely to pass,” Kestenbaum said. “There may be effort to stop it, but I don’t think that will be successful.”

In June, the Supreme Court agreed to take up an appeal for case that originates in Wisconsin that argues the electoral districts are drawn to favor Republicans. The case gives the court its first opportunity in over a decade to reevaluate what constitutes gerrymandering. 

Depending on how the court rules on the case, the outcome could have immense impact on Michigan and other states with skewed electoral districts.