What she did
Following the 2016 election, Katie Fahey’s Facebook post started a 5,000+ volunteer grassroots movement, collecting over 425,000 signatures to support an amendment to Michigan’s constitution to establish an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to end gerrymandering. The amendment passed with 61% of the vote on November 6, 2018.
Frustrated that political divisiveness across the country (and within her own family) had reached a crisis point, Katie Fahey posted on Facebook two days after the 2016 elections asking if anyone wanted to help her take on gerrymandering. Within months, she had established Voters Not Politicians to advocate for a ballot initiative that would amend Michigan’s Constitution. The goal: To put an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission of 13 voters – not politicians – in charge of drawing the state’s election maps.
In Fahey’s eyes, gerrymandering is a way for political parties to rig the system, and that was inconsistent with her view of how democracy should work. In Michigan, as in most states, the governor and legislature control the redistricting process. According to The Center for Michigan, Michigan has some of the nation’s worst electoral maps. In the 2016 election, Michiganders cast almost an equal number of votes for Republican and Democratic candidates in congressional seat races. Because of gerrymandering, however, zero congressional races were decided by a margin of victory below 10% – meaning the races were not competitive. With a Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature drawing the district maps, Republicans took 64% of the seats.
With little experience, Fahey began to organize her quickly growing number of volunteers and to solicit advice from local organizations and experts. Her team fanned out across the state to ask Michiganders about the state’s redistricting system and whether and how they might like to see it changed. From all this input, VNP developed a proposal to amend the state’s constitution. The next step was to get it on the ballot for the 2018 election.
Fahey’s campaign encountered significant opposition from groups linked to the Republican Party, as VNP had anticipated, and also from some organizations they thought would be natural allies. What they found surprising was that “the political and nonprofit establishment would not give us the time of day,” Fahey explained during a plenary session at the 2019 UnRig Summit. “It was eye-opening.”
Rather than offering to help, those organizations discouraged VNP from positioning itself as nonpartisan and advised Fahey to delay VNP’s efforts until 2020, a timeframe that was more in line with their own agendas.
After much internal discussion, Fahey and her leadership team chose to forge ahead. They had collected survey data that told them the citizens of Michigan were ready and anxious for real redistricting reform, as were the thousands of volunteers at VNP. They went ahead to develop a proposal to put on the ballot in 2018, though perhaps they did not fully understand the scale of their task.
Fahey described a process that involved many barriers – from knowing how to set up a ballot initiative committee to being in compliance with all the fundraising laws associated with a campaign. “If you’ve never done it before, it’s very hard to wrap your mind around,” Fahey said. “Another thing, we didn’t know who to know. We didn’t know how the system fully worked on the inside, which is really important when you’re putting together a strategy to pass something.”
Getting the ballot language approved by the state in time to be added to the 2018 ballot required that VNP collect 315,654 signatures in 180 days. A more established organization would typically hire paid canvassers who would be organized and directed by an experienced, salaried campaign manager and several experienced salaried district captains. Not so with VNP, which had little money but a lot of enthusiastic volunteers who ended up gathering more than 400,000 signatures, well ahead of the 180 day timeline.
VNP had to overcome one more hurdle before they could finally claim victory. A nonprofit group backed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit to prevent the initiative from moving forward. At the end of July 2018, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision to reject the Chamber’s lawsuit. The initiative appeared on the ballot in November and passed with 61% of the vote.
VNP ad with Katie Fahey, September 2018
Fahey had not been involved in politics at all prior to this campaign and her fellow volunteers came from all walks of life and from all political persuasions. Still, they found ways to accomplish what they needed to by utilizing their different skills. Her favorite story involves a woman who didn’t think she had any pertinent skills and didn’t know how she could contribute. When asked what she did in her spare time, she responded – woodworking. That led to the production of more than 5000 clipboards for the volunteers’ use, saving the campaign a significant expense “all because we had a wood carver.”
“Enough people doing what they could, whether driving things, entering data, standing on a street corner being able to talk to people about gerrymandering. That’s what added up to being able to accomplish this.”
–Katie Fahey, founder of Voters Not Politicians and currently executive director of The People
Seeing so many of her friends and neighbors and people who she was meeting for the first time being willing to get involved made a deep impression on Fahey. Since graduating from college in 2011, she had grown cynical about the state of politics, especially with the ongoing Flint water crisis. Her simple Facebook request had clearly stirred something among VNP’s thousands of volunteers.
Fahey explained that they had realized that no one else was going to come and fix this problem for them. “It was really inspiring and reminded me of what I always hoped that America was and what patriotism could look like when you’re learning about it in school.”
After their victory, organizers from around the country, including those from traditional political campaigns, took notice and expressed their surprise that a model based on citizen input, involving thousands of volunteers, could work. For Fahey, it meant many new opportunities to travel the country, share her experience, and ultimately, start a new organization called The People that she hopes will help establish the model of Voters Not Politicians as a blueprint for reform efforts in every state. VNP’s new leadership supported Fahey in her desire to start the new organization.
Voters not Politicians realizes their job isn’t over. Threats to the new Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission continue. A new lawsuit to block the establishment of the Commission was filed against the state government in July by a group linked to the National Republican Redistricting Trust. Michigan’s attorney general has vowed to fight it.
When asked about the likelihood of other attempts by the legislature or other groups to overturn or otherwise undermine the work of the Commission, Fahey explained, “Political parties are now unfortunately working to game the system — that is their default setting.” Fahey noted that the budget is one long-established mechanism for foiling reform – the legislature would only need to underfund the Commission in order to sabotage its performance and disillusion the people who supported it.
Still, Fahey is optimistic that the Commission will successfully defy efforts to stop or weaken it. “There are a lot of people that have invested time and energy and money in this, so making sure that their legislators know that we are watching has been another big part of the strategy once we got the initiative passed.”
Katie Fahey, interview with Michael Deal on October 15, 2019
Joshua A. Douglas, Vote for US: How to Take Back Our Elections and Change the Future of Voting, Prometheus Books, 2019
Kevin Johnson, “Laboratories of Democracy at Work: A Comparison of the 2018 Anti-Gerrymandering Ballot Initiatives,” Election Reformers Network, published Aug 23, 2018, downloaded from https://electionreformers.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Laboratories-of-Democracy-at-Work.pdf, accessed Aug 30, 2019
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Jake Neher, Cheyna Roth, “Here’s Where Michigan’s Redistricting Effort Stand After SCOTUS Gerrymandering Ruling”, WDET (Michigan’s NPR station), Jul 1, 2019, downloaded from https://wdet.org/posts/2019/07/01/88365-heres-where-michigans-redistricting-effort-stands-after-scotus-gerrymandering-ruling/, accessed Oct 10, 2019
Wikipedia, “Katie Fahey”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katie_Fahey, accessed Nov 4, 2019