East Lansing Campaigners Working on Statewide Gerrymandering Project

Wednesday, November 1, 2017, 3:49 pm
Chris Root

Above: Kathleen Veith of VNP collecting signatures at the Wharton Center in East Lansing.

Since mid-August, about fifty East Lansing residents have been out on the streets—and parks, the farmers’ market, and the MSU campus—collecting signatures to help obtain the 315,654 petition signatures needed to get an amendment to the Michigan constitution onto the November 2018 ballot that would end gerrymandering by changing how Michigan’s political district boundaries are drawn.

“Gerrymandering” means drawing district boundaries that give an advantage to the political party that draws them. The Detroit Free Press has created a video describing how gerrymandering works.

The statewide canvassing campaign, named “Voters Not Politicians” (VNP), has collected more than 280,000 signatures, well over halfway to the number of verified registered voters plus some cushion that is needed to get the proposal onto the ballot. The six-month deadline for collecting signatures is February 12, but circulators hope to finish sooner, before colder temperatures, snow, and ice set in.

Walt Sorg, one of more than 200 trained presenters of the VNP campaign, told a group at East Lansing’s Edgewood United Church on October 22 that this campaign is highly unusual in relying entirely on volunteers to collect the large number of signatures required on a ballot petition to amend the state constitution.

The VNP Ballot Committee’s latest report to the Michigan Secretary of State, filed on October 25, confirms that none of the $278,300 that has been raised to date is being used to pay either the more than 3,000 trained canvassers across the state or organizers leading the statewide campaign. (Circulators for petitions on many other issues are often paid $1 per signature.)

Sorg was also one of several presenters at a forum about gerrymandering in East Lansing back in February that drew a standing-room-only crowd at the high school cafeteria. Thirty meetings were held across the state during this early period, when the constitutional amendment language was still being worked on.

What would the proposed constitutional amendment do? In a nutshell, after every ten-year national census, the boundaries of each state’s Congressional and state legislative districts must be redrawn if there have been significant population changes. Currently, in Michigan it is the state legislature that redraws these boundaries. In 2020, Michigan could face having 13 instead of 14 Congressional districts, requiring revision of the district maps.

The proposed amendment to the Michigan constitution will remove this power from the state legislature and, instead, create an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission every decade to redraw district boundaries. Thirteen registered voters in Michigan would be selected to serve on the Commission from among 10,000 randomly selected registered voters from various parts of the state plus people who apply to serve. Thus the name of the campaign: voters, not politicians, would redraw the boundaries that determine where people’s votes are counted.

Commissioners selected would include four from each of the two largest political parties plus five independents. Elected officials and lobbyists, and their spouses, would be excluded from serving. The Commission’s work would all be done in public and, in a system that would be something like a jury, they would be tasked with making a fair judgement based on information presented by experts on whom they can call. Agreement on new district maps would require the votes of at least two people from each group represented on the Commission.

When canvassing began in mid-August, many East Lansing residents signed petitions to place the constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot. For example, at the launch of the “One Book One Community” program on August 27, nine petition circulators kept busy in front of Hannah Community Center approaching people who arrived early to get seats to hear Saroo Brierley, author of A Long Way Home.

Circulators also regularly went to the farmers’ market at Valley Court Park on Sundays. After a month or two, many customers there who were interested had signed the petition.

The East Lansing Public Library has attracted circulators, too, including when the library hosted people to watch the total solar eclipse on August 27.

More recently, on an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in mid-October, about a dozen circulators were positioned along the MSU homecoming parade route to collect signatures from fans as well as some people on floats while they waited for the parade to begin.

ELi interviewed three VNP volunteers from East Lansing about their motivations and experiences circulating petitions. Shari Rose and Roberta McCall both told ELi that they like to talk with people about gerrymandering because it is at the foundation of how our political system is supposed to operate.

Rose, who coaches the debate team at MacDonald Middle School, said, “It’s fundamental to our representative democracy. Gerrymandering undermines that. This is an opportunity to make things more fair and also maybe give people some more faith and confidence in the system.”

“Gerrymandering impacts everything about politics,” McCall said. “It’s bigger than any one issue.”

Anna Fisher spoke from her own experience: “I’ve been frustrated for many years, feeling that my vote doesn’t count. I’ve been wanting for years to do something about it. I was eager to sign up.”

McCall said she was surprised at the breadth of support she has found and the little partisan push-back she has heard when she invites people to sign the petition. “A number of people that I know are one party or another, and they’ve all been equally enthusiastic,” she said.

Rose has found that there are a lot of people who haven’t heard of gerrymandering. She said, “I do a lot of five-minute presentations. It doesn’t feel divisive when I talk with people about it.” She finds that a lot of people understand the issue quickly. “Once they see my ‘Voters Not Politicians’ pin, that practically gets them to sign.”

The canvassing is well into its third month now, so it takes canvassers longer to find people in East Lansing who haven’t already signed the petition. Every signature on a petition must be made in person in front of a circulator.

East Lansing circulators have been getting signatures from residents of many other counties. When I asked canvassers how many petitions they are carrying around for different counties, McCall and Fisher said they have about 20 unfinished petitions, while Rose has about 40 counties open.

East Lansing volunteers are among the people who canvas on campus at events that bring in people from all over the state. Rose has collected signatures at MSU football games and finds it fun. “People are either grateful that I’m there and say ‘thanks for taking the time to do this’ or they don’t want to be bothered. I have gotten around 50 signatures every time I have gone.”

McCall has also circulated among tailgaters at home games. McCall, who is visually impaired, finds that having a Helper Dog is sometimes an ice-breaker. She works with a partner who can make eye contact with people who are attracted to her dog. Though having the dog could be an advantage sometimes, not being able to see people clearly can be frustrating. For example, McCall says she took petitions to her exercise class several times, but she couldn’t simply approach people who hadn’t signed previously.

Fisher found collecting signatures before football games frustrating, but she has gone several times to events at the Wharton Center, which also attract people from well beyond East Lansing. At Wharton, Fisher said, with a laugh, “I’ve signed up people from counties I’ve never heard of before, like Missaukee and Wexford.”

McCall unexpectedly got signatures from about ten counties, including in the Upper Peninsula, in a short time on October 19 at the East Lansing Public Library. She dropped by when a bus happened to arrive carrying librarians from around the state who were attending the Michigan Library Association (MLA) Annual Conference being held at the Lansing Center. They were coming for a reception to showcase the East Lansing Library’s recent renovations. (The next day, the MLA announced that the East Lansing Public Library was the recipient of the State Librarian’s Excellence Award for 2017.)

McCall, Rose, and Fisher all said they have enjoyed getting to know other volunteers who are collecting signatures. Voters Not Politicians has organized nine teams in the five-county mid-Michigan region, and East Lansing residents are part of four of them.

Rose said, “I love my team captains, and I hadn’t met them before. I’ve met lots of people I didn’t know who all have a passion for seeing an improvement in how our government functions. The enthusiasm is really infectious to me.”

Fisher doesn’t particularly like the competitiveness between the teams, and McCall says the friendly competition can be fun, but there has sometimes been territorial competition that could be a bit uncomfortable. This has improved by giving canvassers access to a list of events where they can sign up to circulate.

McCall said, “It’s like an obsession for me. If I have any empty time period on my calendar, I want to find someone and do something. In the end, I want to be able to say, whether we made it or we didn’t, there was nothing I could have done to make it better.”

So far there have been no reports of any organized opposition to the Voters Not Politicians canvassing in East Lansing. Statewide organizing against the effort to wrest control over redistricting from the legislature has begun, however. The People to Protect Voters’ Rights Ballot Committee registered with the Secretary of State on October 12, so they can now begin to raise funds and make expenditures.

Robert LeBrant, whose book PAC man: A Memoir describes his involvement in redistricting in Michigan since 1980, told Gongwer in mid-October that he found it “concerning” that VNP had collected more than 200,000 so quickly. Eric Doster, the former General Counsel of the state Republican Party, called VNP a “Democratic front group” and said its proposal would be a “license to gerrymander.”

Doster said the VNP can expect a legal challenge. That challenge would come in the next phase, assuming that circulators collect enough signatures to get their proposal onto the ballot.


Disclosure: Chris Root, the author of this story, is a volunteer circulator for Voters Not Politicians and has contributed to its Ballot Committee.