An activist with the League of Women Voters of Maryland carries signs of Maryland's gerrymandered districts outside the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ashley Oleson, an activist with the League of Women Voters of Maryland, carries googley-eyed signs of Maryland's gerrymandered districts in a March 2018 demonstration outside the U.S. Supreme Court. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

On Election Day, voters in Michigan, Utah, Missouri, and Colorado will decide if independent commissions—not lawmakers—should draw their states’ political districts.

Winter is a grueling time to launch a campaign from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Yet that’s where, in March 2017, advocates kicked off a state initiative to end gerrymandering, one of four state ballot measures going up for a vote next week. Despite the frigid weather in Marquette, one of the state’s frostiest cities, a town hall garnered about 70 concerned residents—not a bad showing for a grassroots push, and a promising start in an effort to organize 33 town halls over 33 days.

Since then, Voters Not Politicians has snowballed. The group aims to put a stop to political gerrymandering, the much-maligned practice that enables majority party leaders, Republican and Democratic alike, to redraw political districts to their maximum advantage. Voters Not Politicians gathered 425,000 signatures to put a new plan for redistricting up for a vote, many more than the law requires. This anti-gerrymandering initiative—Proposal 2 on Michigan’s ballot in the election on November 6—seeks to establish an independent commission that would draw the state’s congressional districts.

The issue has struck a chord with voters. A grassroots measure that started as a viral Facebook post has drawn individual small-dollar contributions from some 14,000 people. A late October poll of 600 likely voters by The Detroit News puts support for Proposal 2 at 58.5 percent, with 26.5 percent opposed and 15 percent undecided—which suggests that gerrymandering could be a thing of the past for the Wolverine State.

“It’s been exciting to see over the last month how much the undecided gap has really shrunk. That makes sense to me,” says Katie Fahey, founder and executive director of Voters Not Politicians. “The current process is done behind closed doors by people who don’t want the general public paying attention.”

Next week, voters in Utah, Missouri, and Colorado will also weigh redistricting ballot measures. Arkansas and Oklahoma are moving toward similar initiatives. Although they range in details, each of these ballot questions would assign responsibility for redistricting to an independent commission. Supporters of these efforts say that ending gerrymandering will restore fairness and common sense to the drawing of political borders.

Redistricting is an especially critical issue in cities, where shifting political fault lines routinely diminish the vote of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. The ballot may be the only way to take back control of a process that has turned toxic in Texas, North Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin, and other states, especially after the Supreme Court punted on the issue in June. But passing anti-gerrymandering measures is by no means the end of reform. If and when voters take back redistricting power, they will face hard questions about what it means to draw a fair and representative district.

Gerrymandering is a more pressing concern in some states than others. In Colorado, a swing state with no hard reputation for politicized redistricting one way or the other, observers describe the paired Amendments Y and Z as preventative measures. But in Utah—where district maps carve up dense population centers such as Salt Lake City in order to dilute their more-liberal vote—the redistricting measure has drawn sharp opposition from those who benefit under the status quo.

Wayne Niederhauser, the Republican president of Utah’s state senate, said that Proposition 4 is really an effort to draw “just better boundaries for Democrats.” The Republican Party has centered its criticism on outside support for the measures. According to The Associated Press, one billionaire Texas couple has poured $7.7 million into these four state campaigns—about “one of every four dollars raised by groups backing the ballot measures.”

In Michigan, where gerrymandering heavily favors Republicans, the GOP has launched an all-out assault against Proposal 2. A group called the Michigan Freedom Fund, which has the backing of the state’s powerful DeVos family, has spent at least $1.2 million to oppose the ballot measure. Fahey says that Voters Not Politicians includes voters of all persuasions, not just Democrats. “The Michigan Republican Party isn’t happy with us, but we certainly have Republican voters who have been with us since day one.”

Proposal 2 details the process by which the state’s independent redistricting commission would be formed. Fahey says that was one of the decisions that Michigan residents debated during town halls: Including too much information could confuse or alienate voters, while including too little could leave the commission vulnerable to a majority party interested in preserving gerrymandering. The proposal would create a lottery: Applications, weighted to ensure they reflect Michigan geographically and demographically, would be selected at random to form a kind of redistricting jury comprising four Democrats, four Republicans, and five unaffiliated members.

The timing is critical: Congressional redistricting will happen in all 50 states in 2022, following the 2020 census. Currently, only Idaho, Arizona, California, and Washington use independent commissions to redraw congressional borders. In Hawaii and New Jersey, this job falls to a political commission, and in Iowa, an advisory board is heavily involved in the legislative process. But in most states, the legislature is responsible for redistricting, a procedure that is prey to gerrymandering from the left (as in Maryland) and the right (Wisconsin and others). Members of California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission recently visited Georgia—where Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp denies that he is actively suppressing black voters—to promote the model that California adopted by ballot in 2008.

The case for redistricting reform may rest on competitiveness. Annie Lo, a research associate at the Brennan Center for Justice, finds that there are fewer toss-up races for the House in states where one political party controls redistricting. About 8 percent of House races in states where courts, commissions, or split parties draw political districts ranked as toss-ups, while just 2 percent of races registered as toss-ups in states where legislatures and governors of a single party drew the seats.

“Broadly, we found that … courts or commissions composed of political appointees were most likely to draw toss-up districts,” Lo writes. “Legislatures in states controlled entirely by Republicans were least likely to draw toss-ups.”

Gerrymandering is at the heart of one of Michigan’s most divisive House races. Lena Epstein, the Republican candidate running for Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, drew fire for her role in a rally hosted by Vice President Mike Pence in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. A former “Jews for Jesus” rabbi led an invocation that named Republican candidates for Congress instead of the 11 victims of the massacre. Epstein has drawn criticism from Detroit Jews who say she does not share their values. While Detroit’s Jewish community was once part of Michigan-11, Republicans have since carved out mostly Jewish neighborhoods, packing them into Democratic-leaning Detroit.   

Independent commissions tasked with drawing political districts can do better than the notoriously noodley gerrymanders in Ohio, Texas, and North Carolina. But as noted in an investigation from FiveThirtyEight, majority-minority districts are more likely to send minority representatives to Congress.

“By grouping together black voters, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, the maps increased Republican electoral prospects in the surrounding districts,” writes Galen Druke, referring to gerrymandering in North Carolina since 1990. “That dynamic has encouraged Republicans to advocate for majority-minority districts, while Democrats have been more skeptical of them.”

Four state ballot measures will test voters’ appetite for redistricting reform next week. But the votes will also reveal something about democracy itself. Fahey says that national good governance groups advised Voters Not Politicians to pursue a far simpler ballot proposal. But leaving out the safeguards could put the commission at risk of underfunding from the governor’s office or other forms of jeopardy. If Proposal 2 passes, the commissions will face even harder questions about which kinds of representation should take priority.

“We didn’t have a set solution,” Fahey says. “Our one guiding principle was, we didn’t want the process to advantage one party over another.”

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