Three days after Donald Trump’s election, Katie Fahey, a 28-year-old Michigander who works for a recycling nonprofit, sent a message into the Facebook ether, not knowing what might come of it. “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan,” she wrote. “If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.”
To her surprise, the message got shared, and shared, and shared some more. Pretty soon the Facebook post had turned into a Facebook group with a couple hundred supporters of all political persuasions from all over the state—lawyers and veterinarians, teachers and doctors, stay-at-home parents and accountants and mailmen. Google Docs and conference calls ensued, followed by fundraising and the formation of leadership committees. By early December, an ambitious statewide campaign to end gerrymandering in Michigan had emerged, with Fahey at its helm.
“After the November election, people who hadn’t been involved in politics before started to pay attention,” says Fahey, who lives in the Grand Rapids area. “There was extreme frustration with the way things were being done.”
Fahey’s strictly nonpartisan group, which calls itself Voters Not Politicians, has channeled that frustration into a grassroots effort to alter the state Constitution and effectively prohibit partisan gerrymandering there. The group’s volunteers, who now number in the thousands, are presently collecting signatures to put an initiative to that end on the 2018 ballot. If they succeed, if they manage to break the power of entrenched politicians to shape election maps, Michigan’s voters will surely benefit from more representative political leadership.
The Great Lakes State suffers from some of the most cynically designed electoral districts in the country. After 2010’s midterm election, when the Republican Party took control of all three branches of Michigan government, its operatives redrew the voting map there, reshaping congressional and statehouse districts in an absurd, almost surrealist, manner. One congressional district, the 14th, is curving and chunky and S-shaped, like a bloated snake. Another, the 11th, looks like an upside-down U, one half of which has been shriveled by the sun. Still another, the 12th, could be a misshaped yogi in the middle of a sit-up. This Dalí-worthy district redesign, meanwhile, has benefited the GOP mightily.
According to a 2017 report from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, titled “Extreme Maps,” Michigan, along with North Carolina and Pennsylvania, is one of the three states in the nation whose congressional districts consistently exhibit “the most extreme levels of partisan bias.” Partisan bias, the report’s authors write, is “the degree of systematic advantage one party receives over another in turning votes into seats.” Indeed, Michigan districts so effectively reward Republican officeholders that the GOP likely has control over an average of two extra congressional seats as a result. And that’s not to mention state-level House and Senate seats, where outcomes are even more skewed against Democrats. A recent article in Bridge magazine found that Democrats won a slim majority of total votes in Michigan’s state House election last year, but gerrymandering helped the GOP capture 63 of that legislative body’s 110 seats—or more than 57 percent.