Fixing Bugs in Democracy: Organizing During a Pandemic

Tuesday, Apr 14, 2020
by Benjamin Gelman ’22, Pace Center Student Correspondent

Katie Fahey never thought her Facebook post would ignite a political movement. However, her post in 2016 about how she wanted to take on gerrymandering in her home state of Michigan began a successful movement to create a ballot initiative to establish a nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission. “I’ve always felt a strong civic duty toward voting,” she said, and her commitment has changed politics in Michigan and beyond. 

Fahey, executive director of The People, was the guest of Princeton University Professors Sam Wang and Julian Zelizer in the second in a series of three virtual town halls titled “Fixing Bugs in Democracy.” This edition, “Organizing During a Pandemic,” focused on how citizens can approach political activism in these times of social distancing. The series is organized by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement, Service Focus, and Princeton Public Lectures, and is aimed at highlighting issues in contemporary American democracy. Taking place virtually due to COVID-19, it also included a discussion on microtargeting on April 2, and another on gerrymandering on April 17.

Gerrymandering is the practice by which politicians in power draw districts in a way that increases their chances of reelection, which can often disenfranchise voters of the opposite party. Fahey began the discussion by speaking about the origins of her gerrymandering concerns, saying how the Flint water crisis showed her the practical dangers of gerrymandering.

“The crisis has its roots in gerrymandering, in the removal of local control of water from the people of Flint,” she said. She also noted how this led her to think that “I don't want to live in an America, in a Michigan right now where we have an entire city that was poisoned because of government incompetence and nobody is doing anything about it.”

She said that she posted on Facebook about it, “not thinking it would lead to anything.” However, like-minded people began reaching out to her in large numbers, and soon the movement to end partisan gerrymandering in Michigan was gaining steam. Fahey and her new allies began to figure out what tools they needed to bring change at a systemic level, which led to the ballot initiative process.

Zelizer asked Fahey how she went about getting voters interested in an issue such as gerrymandering, an effort that has historically been very difficult. “How did you speak to people in a way that the issue gained greater meaning and sounded like something that could actually change?” he asked.

Fahey stressed that she began with educating people on foundational ideas such as what terms such as gerrymandering, redistricting, etc. actually mean. She also filled voters in on the history of gerrymandering in Michigan, how both parties had participated in it, and what other options for redistricting existed. 

“We talked about what is possible … what can we do about it as citizens?” she said. She also said that a crucial component of their work was ensuring that they kept track of practical goals that could be achieved, and that “breaking it down, focusing on the next step, focusing on how each of us can contribute” were essential habits.

When asked by Zelizer how she thinks activism can adapt to this moment, Fahey said that her movement “would not have been able to be successful without the internet, organizing tools, and the ability to connect with people … right now is a good time to find other people passionate about the same thing that you want to do to make the world better … they are out there.” She also emphasized the importance of online organizing tools such as Google Suite and Trello that may be helpful in these times of virtual activism. 

Fahey also discussed how the movement has now begun to look outward and assist other reform efforts through sharing tips, resources, and connections. She suggested that other reform movements take advantage of the skills and experiences that members have, citing a story about how one member of her anti-gerrymandering effort had experience in crafting corporate advertising that proved very helpful to the organization. 

Overall, Fahey’s talk was characterized by a faith in the power and will of citizens to improve their own governments. She said she realized at one point during her organizing that “It’s not the people of our state that are screwed up, it's the incentives that right now in our political system are very skewed, and they don't allow for accountability,” and that this realization fueled her dedication to her cause.

“People power matters” Fahey said, and her story and successes are important reasons not to forget that, even in a time when we must imagine new ways to connect those people for the greater good. 

Register online for the next Fixing Bugs in Democracy talk on Gerrymandering with author David Daily and you can receive digital access to the film "Slay the Dragon," an award winning film about the fight against gerrymandering.