Group plans gerrymander fight in Michigan

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A new group called “Voters Not Politicians” on Friday announced initial plans for a petition drive and 2018 ballot proposal seeking to create a “citizens’ redistricting commission” to redraw political boundaries.

The ballot committee, which filed paperwork with the state this week, is spearheaded by grassroots activist Katie Fahey, who described herself as an independent voter frustrated that Michigan’s redistricting process is currently controlled by whichever party is in charge every 10 years. It’ll next happen after the 2020 U.S. Census.

“We don’t want the people who clearly have a direct benefit from being able to manipulate these maps to be able to control them,” Fahey said at a press conference in Lansing.

The grassroots group hopes to use volunteer petition circulators but will also seek small donations that could be used to pay petitioners if necessary, she said. It is proposing an amendment to the Michigan Constitution, which will require it to collect more than 315,000 valid signatures within a 180-day window.

Organizers have not yet finalized petition language but plan to do so after gathering feedback from residents in a series of town hall forums. An initial batch of meetings are scheduled next month in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Dearborn, Livonia, Saginaw and other Michigan cities.

The group says Michigan’s system for drawing legislative and congressional district boundaries allows political parties to consolidate political power by creating maps that benefit their candidates but diminish the voice of voters.

“Gerrymandering is a national disgrace, but because elections are run by the states, it has to be ended on a state-by-state basis,” said Davia Downey, an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University.

John Hanieski, an economics consultant and former chairman of the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, noted that Republicans enjoy a 63-seat majority in the 110-member state House even though party candidates combined to receive only a few thousand more votes than Democrats in 2016.

“This is not unique to any political party. The Democrats in Maryland are doing the same thing there that Republicans are doing in Michigan,” Hanieski said. “We have a sense of urgency that this has to change. The people have to take back their proper role in determining who represents them.”

Michigan maps are generally drawn in accordance with traditional criteria, including acceptable population variance and the use of counties as the “basic building blocks” of legislative districts, said Bob Labrant, a Republican consultant who has worked on redistricting issues for decades. The process is complicated by “self-clustering” caused by people who tend to live in communities they are politically compatible with, Labrant said earlier this month.