Drawing the Line on Corruption
By Amy Kerr Hardin | June 30, 2018
A dedicated group of Michigan activists working to restore the democratic process is under attack through a well-heeled GOP campaign designed to thwart citizen-driven governance. Sketchy maneuvers intended to quash statewide ballot questions in the November election predictably rear their head every two years, with 2018 being no exception.
This time around, their scheme is to scuttle a popular vote to end gerrymandering. After the 2010 census, the party in power was able to redraw the lines of voting districts to heavily favor Republicans, even though Democrats typically win the popular vote in Michigan. In the 2016 Trump-fueled wave, Republicans earned only 50 percent of the state senate vote, yet scored 71 percent of the seats. It’s called gerrymandering, and it has created a state-by-state GOP tsunami, nullifying the votes of millions of Americans, with Michiganders struck particularly hard.
The current attack on our democracy harkens back six years ago, to a state referendum intended to repeal Michigan’s emergency manager law. A broad grassroots coalition successfully gathered signatures to put the measure on the ballot. Republicans sunk low, employing a number of outlandish legal tactics aimed at keeping the question from the people. It started with “font-gate” — a claim that the font size used on the petition was too small. A corporate-funded political action committee, (a practice known as “astroturfing”), was formed to challenge the validity of the petitions. The Board of State Canvassers is the public body charged with certifying petitions for the ballot. One of its members was a principal in the corporation that funded the fight against the ballot drive. The Potemkin PAC ultimately failed, with the people voting down the emergency manager law. Governor Snyder’s response was to claim that voters were “confused.” Weeks later, he penned his name to a new emergency manager law — but this time with a provision rendering it referendum-proof.
Enter the 2018 ballot question on gerrymandering. The grassroots group, Voters Not Politicians, gathered many more petition signatures than needed to secure its place come November. Its goal is simple: Assign an independent commission to draw voting district boundaries instead of allowing politicians to abuse the system through decisions that intentionally marginalize large swaths of voters.
Katie Fahey, a 28-year old activist spearheaded the effort. As founder of VNP, she assembled possibly the most impressive grassroots campaign in Michigan’s history. Social media has taken a beating in recent months, but Fahey managed to harness its power with a Facebook post in the wake of the 2016 election with this request: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan. If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.” She marshaled 300 statewide captains who managed volunteer teams to collect signatures in all 83 counties.
The petitions were submitted to the Board of State Canvassers, but as we learned in 2012, that body is riven by partisan gamesmanship. GOP forces on the board postponed, and eventually canceled, a hearing on the eligibility of the VNP ballot question, citing legal challenges as a roadblock to allowing the measure to move forward. An astroturf PAC funded by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — with the eye-rolling moniker Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution — filed suit, claiming the measure was too broad in scope. The Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed in a 3–0 ruling, saying the question had squarely earned a spot on the ballot.
End of story? Hardly.
The legal battle will rage on. The opposition PAC is taking it to the Michigan Supreme Court. The impetus behind this line of attack is not simply to stop the measure from reaching popular vote. No, the GOP strategy is to drain the coffers of the activists through legal costs, leaving them unable to mount an information campaign for their cause in the run-up to the election. The well-funded opposition will pull cards out of their sleeves, among other dark places, for months to come.
Two supreme court justices vying for reelection have been handsomely bestowed with financial support from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, most recently at a fundraiser at the chamber’s headquarters — an address shared by the PAC challenging the VNP ballot drive.
Michigan’s high court justices are, at least on the surface, non-partisan. However, hopefuls to that office are selected by political parties, and are thereby highly partisan creatures. Money — truckloads of it — is the driving force behind their campaigns. In 2016, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce showered favored nominees with $2.2 million in campaign cash, mostly in the form of “dark money” — a bonanza funneled through nonprofit organizations that exist solely to influence elections. Michigan’s Supreme Court races are notorious for the corruptive influence of outside funds.
Herein lies the problem: The two justices receiving Chamber support are expected to be renominated this August by the Michigan Republican Party. But, the Supreme Court appeal of the lower court’s order to place the redistricting question on the ballot is likely to be heard prior to those nominations. Translation: Judicial prudence and impartiality cannot be trusted to protect the democratic process.
Michigan’s legislature is equally venal. They recently invoked a constitutional loophole that permitted them to preemptively act on a qualified ballot measure they favored, thereby cancelling the popular vote. They repealed a statute that required union-scale wages on public construction projects. Regardless of how one might feel about the referendum question itself, blocking voters was an intentional assault on democracy.
Of course they knew the public would have quashed their campaign. That’s why they did it.
Amy Kerr Hardin is a retired banker, a regionally known artist, a public-policy wonk, and political essayist at Democracy-Tree.com.