Volunteer movement helped carry redistricting proposal to the ballot - MLive - by Lauren Gibbons
As hundreds of boxes stuffed with signatures were passed hand to hand in front of the Michigan Secretary of State building in December 2017, Kyle Richardson realized he'd been a part of something special.
By that point, the Detroit resident had spent several months volunteering for the Voters Not Politicians campaign, collecting signatures throughout the metro area. He was new to this kind of campaign work, but threw himself into it because he believed in the cause of preventing political gerrymandering.
It took being surrounded by hundreds of his fellow volunteers turning in the hundreds of thousands of signatures they'd collected for him to understand what they'd accomplished.
"I didn't know how impactful or how big it was until that moment," he said. "None of us are in this because we want a certain tax policy, a certain education policy...we all just want to see our politicians work the way we were taught it worked."
The word-of-mouth campaign that Richardson and thousands of other volunteers spread across Michigan is the backbone of Proposal 2, which voters will see on the ballot Nov. 6.
Despite a lack of paid petition gatherers and intense opposition that took the proposed initiative all the way to the state Supreme Court, Voters Not Politicians supporters managed to get a proposed Constitutional amendment for an independent redistricting commission on the statewide ballot.
Now, they're hoping the same forces that got them this far will sway a majority of Michigan residents.
Where it all began
Much of the credit for Proposal 2's existence goes to Katie Fahey, who founded Voters Not Politicians after posting a call to reform Michigan's redistricting system on Facebook.
In 2017, Fahey and other early Voters Not Politicians backers began touring the state, getting feedback from Michigan residents at forums and town halls as they set their sights on crafting an amendment to Michigan's Constitution.
"We weren't behind closed doors crafting this policy," Fahey said in a recent interview. "From day one, we were trying to create a solution the people of Michigan want."
The language Voters Not Politicians settled upon in Proposal 2 is meant to change the political redistricting process by circumventing politics as much as possible.
Where currently the state Legislature is tasked with drawing Michigan's state and federal political districts every 10 years based on population changes in the census, Proposal 2 would shift that responsibility to a 13-member independent redistricting commission consisting of five independent members, four self-declared Democrats and four self-declared Republicans.
Elected officials, candidates, lobbyists and political consultants or staffers -- as well as family members of politicians or other insiders -- would be barred from participating within six years of their politically-affiliated position.
The commissioners would be selected randomly from a pool of registered voters who submitted applications to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State would be required to circulate commissioner applications to 10,000 registered Michigan voters at random from various regions of the state.
Final maps for congressional and state House and Senate lines would require majority approval and support from at least two Republicans, two Democrats and two independents on the commission.
It's a complicated plan - when the group was first cleared for signature gathering on the initiative in August 2017, state elections officials said it was one of the most complex they'd ever looked at, reviewing six drafts of the language before recommending it for approval.
Convincing the public
From the outset, Fahey said it was going to be an all-volunteer effort, a tough challenge in a state where it takes more than 315,000 signatures collected in a 180-day period to get a Constitutional amendment on the ballot.
In addition to recruiting signature gatherers, Voters Not Politicians enlisted volunteers to educate their communities through outreach and public events across the state.
Portage resident Stacey Ledbetter said it had been years since she had volunteered for a political campaign, but she was convinced to volunteer after a friend of hers encouraged her to learn more about the effort.
Ledbetter's role is to explain to people why such a complicated political process should matter to them in a way anyone can understand.
"It clicked for me once it was explained in simple terms," she said.
Fahey said the education aspect of the campaign is crucial to getting Proposal 2 through.
"There's not a lot of people who are pro-gerrymandering," she said. "Our ability to actually go and reach voters is really critical in our ability to be successful."
Many Voters Not Politicians supporters and volunteers were convinced by the campaign's assertion that the way political lines are currently drawn benefit the majority party and don't adequately reflect the communities Michigan voters live in.
The Voters Not Politicians campaign ultimately collected more than enough signatures to make the 2018 ballot, and has since directed its attention to spreading the message to the general public.
A separate challenge to Michigan's existing district lines is currently making its way through the federal courts, with League of Women Voters and other parties claiming Michigan's state and congressional districts drawn in 2011 under a Republican majority are gerrymandered in a way that violates Constitutional rights.
Critics of the initiative fought hard to keep the Voters Not Politicians plan off the ballot, and the legal battle over the proposal went all the way to the Supreme Court.
In a 4-3 ruling, Supreme Court justices David Viviano, Bridget Mary McCormack, Richard Bernstein and Beth Clement concluded the plan put forward by Voters Not Politicians was not a general revision of the Constitution, and did not negatively impact powers assigned by the three branches of government.
The court's majority decision concurred with a unanimous decision from the state Court of Appeals, which compelled the Michigan Board of State Canvassers to place the Voters not Politicians measure on the ballot.
That hasn't stopped the Michigan Republican Party and other conservative groups from speaking out against the proposal. Many have criticized the plan for too broadly limiting who is allowed to be on the commission, and have questioned the legitimacy of a redistricting system with minimal checks from other areas of government.
Protect My Vote, a group opposing Proposal 2, recently released a radio ad claiming the proposal would write a "blank check" to the commissioners and would have no limits to pay or perks. Voters Not Politicians refuted the ad's claims and issued requests to radio stations asking for it to be taken down.
Tony Daunt, spokesperson for Protect My Vote, said in a statement voters oppose Proposal 2 when they "learn the truth" about it.
"The proposal would cram this massive new bureaucracy and spending into the state's constitution, which means voters would have almost no recourse to do anything about it," he said.
At the Michigan Republican Party Convention, lingering dissent with the court's decision flared up during the nomination process, when opponents encouraged delegates to abstain from voting for sitting Supreme Court Justice Beth Clement over her decision to let Proposal 2 on the ballot. Clement earned the nomination despite the opposition.
Backers of Proposal 2 have stressed the bipartisan nature of their cause, highlighting support from former Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz and others across the political spectrum.
Elizabeth Benyi first attended a Voters Not Politicians presentation in February 2017, and said she didn't realize until that point how big of an issue redistricting was in Michigan.
Since she signed up as a volunteer, the retired surgeon has traversed the western Upper Peninsula wearing several hats for the campaign - signature collector, educator, outreach coordinator. As she stood outside bars and restaurants with a signature sheet in hand, or answered questions during a presentation, Benyi said she never got the sense it was a partisan issue for voters or the people who want Proposal 2 to succeed.
"It is a true grassroots movement," she said. "We are nonpartisan volunteers from every political persuasion, as are the people who signed the petition."
As the election approaches, Voters Not Politicians has seen support come from prominent national voices, perhaps most notably from Republican actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Michigan is just one of several states considering an independent redistricting commission this year - voters in Colorado, Missouri and Utah will also see similar proposals on their ballots - and Schwarzenegger, a longtime advocate for redistricting reform, has been fundraising for these efforts since the summer.
On Saturday, Schwarzenegger rallied in East Lansing with Voters Not Politicians supporters, praising Fahey and other volunteers for realizing there was an issue and stepping up to try and fix the problem.
"It's easy to complain, but then to go up and say, 'I'm going to do something about it' - that's what she did," he said, referring to Fahey. "I'm so proud that all of you are here today."
David Daley, author of the book "Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn't Count," has extensively studied the impacts of politically-motivated redistricting in various parts of the U.S.
During a recent visit to Michigan to support Proposal 2, Daley said Voters Not Politicians volunteers are taking a dry, complicated issue "and injecting life and passion into it," calling the initiative one of the most amazing stories in the country this election cycle.
"This feels like a big, structural, entrenched problem, but people working together can take that power back," he said. "This is just an amazing example of how democracy can work. It's just really inspiring."
More information about the Nov. 6 midterm elections:
Polls will be open in Michigan from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6. Check Michigan's Secretary of State website to see whether you are registered and to preview your ballot.
MLive has partnered with the League of Women Voters of Michigan Education Fund to provide candidate information and other voting resources to Michigan readers.
The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan political organization that encourages informed and active participation in government. For specific information about the three statewide ballot proposals and other Michigan races, visit Vote411.org.