My guest today is Shawn M. Griffiths, Election Reform Editor for Independent Voter Network, or IVN.us. Welcome to OpEdNews, Shawn.
Joan Brunwasser: While I'm confident that many of our readers are in favor of election reform, I'm willing to bet that most them are not familiar with IVN. Let's take the opportunity to change that. What can you tell us about your organization?
Shawn Griffiths: IVN has published content educating voters on across-the-board political and election reform for a decade now. It is a nonpartisan, open platform for independent-minded voters, founded not on an ideology, but an etiquette: No personal attacks, no partisan attacks, substantiate claims, and no self-promotion. We encourage people to elevate the state of discourse online in a substantive, nuanced, and a civil way. We provide readers with valuable and extensive information on the growing nonpartisan reform movement that is making historic gains and continues to grow. As it has grown, so have we.
JB: It sounds wonderful, especially these days. What is gerrymandering and why is everyone so hot and bothered about it?
SG: Gerrymandering, specifically partisan gerrymandering, occurs when legislators redraw legislative and congressional districts after every decennial census. However, the political majority leverages their authority to redraw the maps so they can protect their party's majority and power. One way this is done is by packing voters not registered with the party in power into a few districts, while ensuring they can get as many of their own voters in a majority of districts. This often leads to oddly shaped districts like the infamous "Goofy Kicking Donald" congressional district that existed in Pennsylvania before courts forced the state to redraw its maps. It really looked like a poor sketch of Goofy kicking Donald Duck, and in one place was held together by a single seafood shack.
The reason why millions of Americans are upset about this is because it marginalizes voters outside the dominant political party and leaves many unrepresented. It may even divide communities where people share mutual interests and needs. In Michigan, where nonpartisan redistricting reform passed on Election Day, for instance, one street in Grand Rapids is divided by three legislative districts, meaning one neighbor has a different state representative than another. In Wisconsin, the GOP gets about half the statewide vote but ends up with about two-thirds of the state legislative seats. The same disproportionate representation can be found in Democratic-controlled states like Maryland as well.
Nonpartisan reformers want to fix this so that voters are properly and adequately represented.
JB: Gerrymandering has had an outsize effect, assuring that the political playing field is not level. But voters are fighting back. Tell us what happened across the country on November 6th.
There were nonpartisan redistricting reforms on the ballot in four states: Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah. These reforms varied in nature, but the goal was the same: Voters should choose their politicians, not the other way around.
Some of these proposals simply establish independent redistricting commissions of various sizes to draw and approve new maps -- taking the process out of the hands of state lawmakers. The most unique, though, is probably Missouri's, which creates a new state position for a nonpartisan demographer to draw new maps and then a citizens' commission will review the maps.
The campaigns behind these efforts had to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures to get on the ballot. The proposals in Michigan and Missouri had to survive legal challenges from special interests. The road was never easy, and intentionally so by the established power structure in some of these states.
On election night, though, the voters sent a clear message to their state politicians: We want change. The proposals in Colorado, Michigan, and Missouri passed overwhelmingly, garnering between 61-71% of the vote -- landslide victories. There was no mistake what the people, regardless of their political affiliation, wanted.
The proposal in Utah, which establishes a seven-person independent redistricting commission, is still in a tight race. By the end of election night, the proposal was leading with a margin of 2,250 votes. The proposal creates a commission comprised of people appointed by the governor and state legislative leadership. The important thing to note is that people who have held or run for office in the past four years, or been in the leadership of a political party, or a registered lobbyist, or been appointed or worked for a government body cannot be appointed to the commission.
One of the most remarkable stories, though, is how the Voters Not Politicians campaign came to be in Michigan. It started as a single Facebook post from its founder, Katie Fahey, disappointed with the current state of politics after the 2016 election, and it blossomed into a movement. The campaign listened to what citizens said they wanted from anti-gerrymandering reform and from the feedback and consultation with experts they drafted an amendment to create a 13-member citizens' redistricting commission, comprised of four Republicans, four Democrats, and five independents. It is the only proposal that gives independents more seats at the table. It passed with 61% of the vote.
It was truly a remarkable night for the anti-gerrymandering reform movement, and testament to the strength grassroots movements can have in American politics when people are united behind a common goal.