LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan voters will decide in November whether to change the way state Senate and state and U.S. House of Representatives districts are set.
The ballot proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in Michigan has gotten more attention, but the fight over legislative redistricting has been raging mostly under the radar for the last year — even though it will have a far greater and longer lasting impact.
The initiative got its unlikely start when recent Aquinas College graduate Katie Fahey, living in Caledonia, posted on Facebook last summer asking people if they wanted to talk about ending gerrymandering in Michigan.
Gerrymandering is the practice in which the political party that redraws districts after each census does so in such a way that it will benefit. For the last two decades in Michigan, that has been the Republican Party.
“I never thought I’d accidentally start a political movement,” Fahey said.
She is now the head of the group Voters Not Politicians, which has some 5,000 active volunteers and has allied with groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. The volunteers gathered 394,000 signatures to get a measure on the ballot creating an independent redistricting commission.
Those signatures were accepted Wednesday by the State Board of Canvassers, sending the proposal to the November election.
“People don’t feel listened to, unfortunately, and they see that redistricting can be one of those first crucial steps for actually holding our politicians accountable for fixing the things we all agree on,” Fahey said. “This is a constitutional amendment so it will actually change our redistricting not only this decade, but for decades to come.”
If the ballot proposal passes, the committee responsible for redrawing districts would always include four Republicans, four Democrats and four Independents from all regions of the state and would be selected by a lottery.
Opponents say gerrymandering isn’t actually a problem.
“Both parties use the political process to their advantage and that’s the way it should be, that’s the way our founders set it up,” said Tony Daunt, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative, pro-Republican activist group that has deep ties to the DeVos family.
He said the group is out to hurt Republicans.
“Whether they say they’re independent or not, they’re Democrat activists and that, to us, makes it … a front group. It’s not what they say they are,” Daunt said. “Democrats and people of the left live in more tightly (populated) areas and Republicans are more dispersed in the rural areas. It’s just kind of a fact of life and you can’t fix that with a governmental policy like this.”
The Freedom Fund argues the proposal is too complicated and excludes too many people, but the Voters group says it is a vast improvement over the current system in Michigan, considered one of the most partisan in the nation.
“The people who benefit from the current system are going to want to keep it that way, so they’re trying to make people feel afraid,” Fahey said. “You wonder why young people or different people don’t want to go out and show up to vote — because it feels like it doesn’t matter. In some ways, it doesn’t always matter in some of those races.”
She said that the proposal made it to the ballot without any partisan or big money donations shows the populist power the idea has.
There have been court challenges to the proposal, with the Michigan Court of Appeals offering a strong opinion that it should go forward. That has been appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, which will likely decide if voters or politicians will decide the state’s political future.