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Grassroots group one step closer to overhauling redistricting in Michigan

We could see the most dramatic change to Michigan politics since term limits. This afternoon, an all-volunteer group is one step closer to overhauling how redistricting is done in Michigan.

In Michigan, it is almost impossible for a petition drive to succeed without using paid, professional petition circulators but, that is just what the group Voters Not Politicians (VNP) has done.

“You know, we had a lot of people who’d never gotten involved in politics as part of our campaign, and I think them getting involved for the first time made them take it really seriously,” Katie Fahey, who’s with VNP, told It’s Just Politics.

The fact that they appear to have pulled this off using just volunteers is a really big deal.

Fahey organized thousands of folks to gather signatures to put a question on the November 2018 ballot that would overhaul the way Congressional and Legislative districts maps are drawn in Michigan.

Redistricting in Michigan is an exercise of raw political power: whoever is in charge of the Legislature draws the lines.

Democrats and progressives say it’s just not fair that Democratic candidates in recent elections totaled more votes statewide but that Michigan Republicans won a lot more seats. In fact, Michigan is often cited as one of the most Gerrymandered state in the nation.

VNP says one reason for that is because of how these maps are drawn. They say redistricting let’s politicians in the majority choose their voters before voters choose their politicians.

“People understand that their politicians have an incentive to be kind of crooked and corrupt,” Fahey says.

So, VNP wants a new system.

Instead of lawmakers drawing district lines, they want the job to go to a 13-person commission made up of Republicans, Democrats and independents who don’t have a direct stake in the outcome.

And, we can’t overstate this: the fact that they appear to have pulled this off using just volunteers - no paid petition circulators - is a really big deal.  It’s almost unheard of. The very well-organized anti-abortion group Right to Life of Michigan, which has its own political staff, is the only all-volunteer effort that’s been able to accomplish this in recent memory.

State elections officials say the redistricting proposal is one of the most complex they’ve ever seen. It is six pages long. (You can read the entire petition here).

It is innovative and complicated. So innovative that it exists nowhere else in the country. So complicated that it will likely be challenged in court. That’s if the ballot drive’s signatures are approved by the Board of State Canvassers.

But, Fahey is feeling good about that. VNP needs 315,654 signatures to get on the ballot. They are turning in 450,000.

But, if they’re approved for the ballot, cue the opposition.

In fact, there is already an opposition group formed. Its leaders are very connected to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the state Republican Party.

Republicans are worried this anti-gerrymandering drive may have captured the sympathies of a public that’s not trusting political institutions. And that redistricting reform could be the next example of voters being willing to give the heave-ho to the establishment, regardless of political party.

They’ve got to be wondering: is 450,000 petition signatures - signed and delivered - just the tip of a political iceberg. 


Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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