Over the last five years, Michigan has become a centre of U.S. electoral reform. The state has abolished gerrymandering, enacted a slew of measures making it easier to vote, cracked down on voter suppression attempts, and imposed new financial disclosure requirements on politicians.
At a time when the country is rent by seemingly intractable divisions that sometimes threaten democracy – and as it girds for another fractious election campaign – Michigan’s example offers a rare bright spot and a potential template for others to follow. Its reforms, however, have mostly flown under the national radar, despite the 10.5 million-strong swing state’s fame for tipping presidential elections.
The moves to improve the democratic system were all enacted by using referenda to amend the state constitution. This has effectively allowed voters to bypass the legislature and break partisan gridlock.
“They have transformed our democracy,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the official in charge of implementing Michigan’s new electoral policies, told The Globe and Mail. “We would not have seen this extraordinary progress were it not for citizen initiatives leading the way.”
The push to overturn gerrymandering, for instance, started with a Facebook post two days after the 2016 presidential election. Katie Fahey, then a 27-year-old working at a recycling non-profit, was alarmed at the angry arguments between friends on either side of the country’s political divide. She was dreading the upcoming family Thanksgiving.
There was one thing she thought most people could agree on: the electoral system was deeply unfair. The worst culprit, she felt, was gerrymandering, the system that allows legislators to draw their own electoral districts for maximum partisan advantage.
So, pacing her kitchen before work, she tapped out a social media post on her phone. “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan,” it said, “if you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.” To her surprise, dozens of people, both friends and strangers, promptly responded.
Ms. Fahey pulled together a campaign. Despite having no previous political-organizing experience, she and hundreds of freshly recruited volunteers managed to collect the 315,654 signatures necessary to trigger a statewide referendum. In 2018, the measure passed with 61 per cent of the vote. Michigan’s electoral districts are now drawn by an independent commission instead of by the state legislature.
Last year’s elections, the first with the newly redrawn district boundaries, were the most competitive in decades. In the lower house of the legislature, the Democrats won 51 per cent of the votes and 56 seats to the Republicans’ 49 per cent and 54 seats – an exact match between popular vote and legislative power.
By comparison, under the previous electoral map, drawn by a Republican-controlled legislature, the party won five comfortable majorities in a row despite losing the popular vote four times. In 2014, for instance, the Republicans netted a 63-to-47 House majority despite a vote share of less than 49 per cent.
Ms. Fahey’s hope is that the need to win over moderate voters in knife-edge electoral districts, combined with narrow margins in the legislature, will encourage more political cooperation and lead to less rancour. Uncompetitive, gerrymandered districts famously favour more aggressively partisan candidates whose chief concern is winning their party’s primary.
“The outcome was so cool. It’s now a super-slim majority,” Ms. Fahey said in an interview at a public library near her home, a leafy lakefront suburb of Grand Rapids in the state’s west. “The parties actually have to work together, which is what our community looks like: people of different political beliefs who do have a lot in common, who want things to get done.”
By 2018, civil rights activists in the state, meanwhile, had spent years pushing politicians to pass laws expanding voting access, to no avail. So they drafted a prospective constitutional amendment containing their biggest demands, organized a signature-gathering campaign and got it on the ballot that autumn. It passed with more than two-thirds of the popular vote.
That referendum gave Michiganders the right to vote by mail and to register to vote as late as election day. It also obliged the state to automatically register people to vote whenever they accessed some government services, such as receiving a driver’s licence.
“We tried multiple means and multiple ways but had been obstructed by the legislature. It was time to put these things into the constitution,” said Michael Davis, executive director of Promote the Vote, the group that organized the referendum.
Unlike Ms. Fahey’s anti-gerrymandering campaign, the 2018 voting rights drive was run by established social justice groups. The ACLU, NAACP and other organizations teamed up to create Promote the Vote.
Mr. Davis said much of Michigan’s passion for democratic reform was spurred by state takeovers of local governments. Throughout the 2010s, the state legislature appointed officials called emergency managers to take control of financially struggling cities, overriding decisions by elected councils. In the most notorious case, the emergency manager in Flint switched the city to a contaminated drinking water supply as a cost-saving measure, leaving 12 people dead and thousands more sick.
“The state was removing duly-elected officials and silencing the will of voters,” said Mr. Davis, 39, as he sat in an office across from the state capitol in Lansing. “The Flint water crisis was a horrific connection for people to have to make between policy decisions and the direct impact on our lives.”
After the 2020 election, in which supporters of Donald Trump tried to curb the use of ballot drop boxes and early voting, then put pressure on local elections boards to overturn the result of the vote, Promote the Vote crafted a second constitutional amendment. This one guaranteed a nine-day early voting period and the use of ballot drop-boxes, both of which were previously left to the discretion of individual cities and counties, varying widely across the state. It also restricted the ability of officials to overturn election results. It passed by referendum last year.
“Given the attacks on election administration systems, we wanted to nullify voter suppression and block chances at election subversion,” Mr. Davis said.
Another 2022 ballot measure, which passed with 66 per cent support, imposed requirements on elected officials to disclose their finances, including gifts from lobbyists and jobs outside of politics. It was backed by a particularly broad coalition, including an association of trade unions and the state Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber unsuccessfully opposed previous electoral reforms, including the anti-gerrymandering campaign. So did other Republican-aligned business interests in the state, such as the Michigan Freedom Fund, backed by the wealthy DeVos family of Grand Rapids.
The new system for drawing Michigan’s electoral boundaries is painstakingly designed to ensure neither political party has an advantage.
The 13 members of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission were chosen using a random selection process from a pool of nearly 10,000 applicants. Neither they nor their close family members can have any ties to elected politics or lobbying. Five of the commissioners must identify as supporters of no political party, four as Republicans and four as Democrats. For a new electoral map to be approved, a majority must agree, including two commissioners from each party and two with no party affiliation.
This contrasts sharply with some other state-level efforts to end gerrymandering, in which redistricting commissions are appointed by partisan legislators. In New York’s case, the legislature even reserved the right to overrule commissioners’ maps.
At times, Michigan’s system of having a commission made up entirely of regular voters with no political experience has led to stumbles. The commissioners have sometimes struggled to follow meeting process rules and bickered openly. But no one in the state appears to doubt that the maps they ultimately drew – for state legislative districts and the U.S. House of Representatives – are free of partisan bias.
Members of both political parties have tried to persuade the courts to throw out the new electoral maps for other reasons. Republicans objected to small differences in population between the state’s congressional districts. Democrats did not like that the commission split up some previously majority-Black districts in Detroit and combined them with neighbouring white suburbs. The first challenge has been thrown out by the courts; the second is pending.
One sunny autumn Friday afternoon, residents of Warren, a northern, blue-collar Detroit suburb, gathered in a high school parking lot for a community voter information fair. A DJ spun hip-hop tracks and a food truck served up barbeque. A van dispatched by Ms. Benson’s office registered voters.
Weaving her way through the crowds with her toddler daughter in tow, Mai Xiong recounted how she usually skipped elections growing up. As a Hmong refugee from Laos, there were typically too many other things on her mind to bother learning about political candidates and figuring out how to vote.
Ms. Xiong’s parents raised nine children on her father’s wages as a machine operator and much of her life was spent on the work and school needed to climb into the middle class. “When you have a lot of barriers, your mindset is not ‘I need to go and vote.’ You’re like ‘Why should I? Because the system is working against me.’” she said.
Now, the 38-year-old is running for Warren city clerk, charged with overseeing the local administration of elections. She promises more ballot drop-boxes and voter-information sessions, with a view to boosting voter turnout in a swing county in one of the country’s most evenly-divided states.
She isn’t the only one who feels that, for all of Michigan’s electoral reforms, there is still much more to do.
Kim Murphy-Kovalick of Voters Not Politicians, the group Ms. Fahey set up for the anti-gerrymandering referendum, said much of that work is about ensuring that the measures passed by referendum are properly enforced. She is currently pushing for the new financial disclosure rules to also cover politicians’ immediate family members, as well as for freedom of information laws to be extended to cover the state legislature.
“The continued work we’re doing is so important to ensure that we don’t backslide on democracy in Michigan,” Ms. Murphy-Kovalick, 45, said.
During the early months of Voters Not Politicians, as Ms. Fahey organized standing-room-only meetings around the state, she said she repeatedly saw people of different political stripes hit it off after months of acrimony.
“You would see people being like ‘I never met a Democrat who believes in fairness until I met you,’ and then somebody else would be like ‘I didn’t know a Republican would want my vote to count as much as theirs,’” she recalled. “It was almost like a healing.”
Now, she works for The People, a national group aiming to break government dysfunction. Among the measures she’s organizing for is the adoption of participatory budgeting and ranked-choice voting. Having to win an opponent’s second-choice votes, she hopes, would encourage politicians to be less partisan – in the same way that non-gerrymandered, competitive legislative districts can advantage moderate candidates over extremists.
Maybe, she thinks, it can help replicate some of the collegiality she found in the wake of that Facebook post seven years ago.
“We found each other, all of us people who were frustrated with the political system,” she said. “We could actually change things. And so we did.”