Katie Fahey, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, speaks March 12 at the Clinton-Macomb Public Library Main Branch in Clinton Township about how the grassroots effort to combat gerrymandering statewide succeeded in the 2018 election.

Katie Fahey, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, speaks March 12 at the Clinton-Macomb Public Library Main Branch in Clinton Township about how the grassroots effort to combat gerrymandering statewide succeeded in the 2018 election.

Photo by Deb Jacques


How political redistricting was put in the people’s hands

Anti-gerrymandering organizer speaks locally

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published March 19, 2019

 John Pettinato, of Memphis; Peggy Buoin, of Memphis; and Judy and Ray Kerr, of St. Clair County, listen to Fahey’s presentation. A few dozen individuals attended.

John Pettinato, of Memphis; Peggy Buoin, of Memphis; and Judy and Ray Kerr, of St. Clair County, listen to Fahey’s presentation. A few dozen individuals attended.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Katie Fahey was just a woman in her mid-20s, living in the Grand Rapids area, working a job in sustainable business. Then, one social media post changed everything.

On Nov. 10, 2016, just days after a heated presidential election, Fahey created a Facebook post: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan,” concluded with a smiley face emoji.

Thanksgiving was on the horizon, and Fahey wasn’t interested in expounding partisanship. For her, adjusting policies — like redistricting, or gerrymandering as it’s commonly known — inspired her. More specifically, she wanted to address policies that seemed derived against the will of the American people.

Her Facebook post received a flurry of positive responses. She seemed to have found a new calling in life. As she joked, the “easy task” was to convince people to support Proposal 2 in the 2018 election.

That proposal, known as the Independent Redistricting Commission Initiative, was eventually supported by 61 percent of voters. But the more riveting part of the story is how Fahey, the nonpartisan Voters Not Politicians organization, and tens of thousands of volunteers across the state made their policy goal a reality.

 

‘This feels like what America’s supposed to be’
On March 12, Fahey stood in front of a few dozen individuals at the Clinton-Macomb Public Library Main Branch in Clinton Township.

The group gathered to hear how Fahey helped galvanize an effort that not only affected at least the next decade of Michigan politics, but also a future generation with hope that they too can affect the democratic process. As she put it, “You don’t need to be an expert to participate in democracy.”

However, she and other VNP volunteers soon found that democracy works in strange ways. Beyond the fact that partisans and lobbyists helped draw district maps for years and years, the way those districts were drawn often made sense only in the political realm.

For example, Fahey recalled literally running through Districts 73, 75 and 76 in Grand Rapids, all in a span of 46 seconds — three different districts, but all neighbors who in all likelihood want the same things for their neighborhoods and communities.

After looking at about 12 other states that changed their state constitutions in relation to redistricting, via votes by the people, she quickly realized that “gerrymandering is always done behind closed doors.”

Instead, VNP opened its doors to include everyone in the process. And it didn’t matter if people were partisan, as long as they wanted a more just system.

The group conducted 33 statewide town hall meetings in 33 days, gaining traction while introducing and explaining a vital issue that many Michiganders weren’t aware of in the first place.

Their message was clear: Change the old process, which required following equal population and the Voting Rights Act, and expand it to include contiguous areas; communities of interest; no advantages provided to parties, politicians or candidates; and respect to city, township and county boundaries.

Basically two years’ worth of boots-on-the-ground efforts started with organizing a team of volunteers, picking a direction and forming a ballot question committee. Then, constitutional language was written. In 180 days, VNP collected 315,654 voter signatures to get on the November 2018 ballot.

More than 14,000 volunteers participated in the campaign, including more than 300 statewide teams and about 225 field captains. These volunteers were composed of lawyers, veterans, stay-at-home fathers and even individuals not old enough to vote.

Woodworkers in the campaign even helped make VNP’s clipboards to help collect signatures, rather than pay about $9 per clipboard at normal rates.

“This feels like what America’s supposed to be,” Fahey recalled.

After the signatures were approved by the state, VNP used its hired attorneys to win a lawsuit in the Michigan Court of Appeals, followed by winning another lawsuit 4-3 with the Michigan Supreme Court.

Fahey said a judge on the Supreme Court later told her that it was the first time the court had been completely filled for a decision.

Finally, convincing approximately 2 million Michigan residents to vote for a redistricting commission was the make-or-break moment. VNP relied on an easy slogan: fair, impartial and transparent, or “FIT.”

They conducted surveys with voters, with a whopping 95 percent of responses saying they didn’t trust lobbyists. However, 15 days before the election, $4 million in ads were spent against VNP’s campaign.

“When we’re locked out of the process, we’re really skeptical. … When politicians have power, they don’t really have any incentive to give it up,” she said.

In the end, VNP’s initiative was endorsed by the UAW, the Michigan Sierra Club, the ACLU, Common Cause and the MI League of Conservation Voters, among a slew of others. In  addition to larger donations, there were about 982,000 donations that did not exceed $16,000.

Applications open Jan. 1, 2020, to be on the new redistricting commission — which will include four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents. Political influencers and family members will not be allowed. As Fahey said, “It requires compromise. What a crazy thing.”

After being so burned out by the system and debating leaving the state altogether, Fahey helped facilitate major change in the “ugly, visceral” world of politics.

“This is what happens when you have a movement by the people,” she said.

A future with conviction

Nanette Noorbakhsh, of St. Clair Shores, said people like Fahey “have to drive” political efforts against people who have more money, lobbyists and know-how to game the system in place. She is confident that redistricting moving forward will be nonpartisan.

“I just think she’s so inspiring,” Noorbakhsh said. “The fact that she’s young and got so involved; she wasn’t political, but she got so involved and got so many young people involved. … This is just so different. This is the way it should be. This is how democracy looks like.”

Dr. Sherman Cottingham, of Clinton Township, said he was originally familiar with the basics prior to doing his own research online and then listening to presenters for about 1 1/2 years.

“It has some merit,” he said. “I believe in order to do the right thing, this is the way to go. I know that Democrats and Republicans have used this to justify their means to stay in control. It wasn’t just one party.”

Cottingham, who is black and is originally from Louisiana, said he could think back to a time when his own father couldn’t vote at all. Now, he has hope that not only minorities, but all people, will take part in this “history-changing process” and become less disenfranchised.

“When I think about my grandkids, who are going to come along after I’m gone, they would have an opportunity to extend themselves and (take) part in the political process because they’re all encouraged to vote once they get to that age,” he said.

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