A year ago I was dreading Thanksgiving dinner.
My friends and family didn’t seem to have as much in common after the divisive presidential election. We shouted talking points past each other, spouting things we read on Facebook and heard on TV.
I didn’t want to have another heartbreaking dinner conversation with people I love and respect that made me feel like we were complete strangers. I wanted to be able to focus on something we could all agree on.
So on the morning of Nov. 10, 2016, I posted on my Facebook page: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan. If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.”
From that Facebook post, Voters Not Politicians was created. We are a group of volunteers working to end the longtime practice of gerrymandering: politicians and lobbyists, both Democrats and Republicans, manipulating the boundaries of legislative districts to benefit themselves and the special interests they cater to.
Why gerrymandering? I remember learning in high school about how our political system is broken at one of its most fundamental levels: the composition of voting districts. Teachers would tell us how one party would gain control and then their politicians, heavily influenced by lobbyists and special interest groups, would draw legislative district lines in a way that ensured they and their friends would be re-elected.
The process would flip when the other party regained control. They didn’t care about ensuring that people have a voice or that elections are supposed to be a competition of ideas. It was just about power. And gerrymandering gave them that power.
We were told there was nothing we could do. It’s just politics. We have to live with it. That bothered me.
But after the election last year I knew that was one thing that could bring together all my friends and family, whether they were Republicans, Democrats, or somewhere in between. We could work on fixing this broken and dysfunctional system that undermines democracy together.
So what to do? The Michigan Constitution allows the people of the state to directly amend it by popular vote.
To do so, they must draft petition language, collect a certain number of signatures, and get a majority of votes to approve the policy on a general election ballot. If Michigan citizens can accomplish those three things, they can ultimately decide important issues, like taking politicians out of the redistricting process and putting voters in charge.
By the end of the first day, my Facebook post had turned into a Facebook group. Within a few weeks, hundreds of people had joined, all asking, “How can I help?”
To join the group, volunteers agree to three rules:
■You represent yourself and not an organization or financial private interest of any kind.
■Discussions and solutions must be strictly nonpartisan. No exceptions.
■You must agree to mutual privacy and respect.
Pretty soon our group had lawyers, data experts, software whizzes, engineers, waiters, teachers, business owners, retirees, students and others working together. Now, we are 10,000-plus volunteers strong, from every part of the state and spanning the entire political spectrum.
Our group uses digital tools to exchange information and stay organized and meets via phone and in small groups around the state. We started as virtual strangers and now connect every day in all parts of the state.
We agree on one thing: We don’t trust politicians to choose their voters. Voters should draw the maps that determine which districts they vote in. It should be done in a representative, independent way. We should stop the secrecy used by political parties, and do redistricting in transparent way so citizens know what is happening. That’s exactly what our solution is.
We will soon turn in 400,000 signatures, collected by unpaid volunteers spanning all 83 Michigan counties. The political establishment is afraid of our proposal and is already trying to keep us off the ballot. They have more money, more power and more connections — but that hasn’t stopped us. We’ve proven that when thousands of citizens join together, their combined power can repair our democracy.
We are about testing if democracy lives in the United States and if solutions can still be truly for and by the people. That’s what we will be able to talk about this Thanksgiving when my family gets together around the table.
And maybe next Thanksgiving, we will be able to say that together, we put people first to really drain the swamp — simply because it was the right thing to do. I’m truly thankful for that.
Katie Fahey is the president and treasurer of Voters Not Politicians.