How Michigan Ended Minority Rule

April 30, 2024

By Ari Berman

Mr. Berman is the national voting rights correspondent at Mother Jones and the author of “Minority Rule: The Right-Wing Attack on the Will of the People — and the Fight to Resist It.”

On April 8, one day before the Arizona Supreme Court reinstated a ban on abortion from 1864, Donald Trump said the issue of abortion rights should be left to the states and “whatever they decide must be the law of the land.”

Mr. Trump’s statement — and the outcry over the Arizona decision — reinforced how state-level policy on issues like abortion can have major national ramifications. Though states’ rights have long been a rallying cry for conservatives opposed to the federal government’s policies on issues like civil rights and abortion, today the states offer Democrats the best opportunity to protect democracy and expand key rights.

For years Democrats have prioritized federal elections over state ones, but they should look to the states as the most effective avenue for progressive reform, especially since state power is very likely to only increase even as the federal system is stacked against Democrats. The Electoral College and the Senate are biased toward whiter, more rural, and more conservative areas while the Supreme Court is a product of those two skewed institutions.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority, in striking down federal abortion and voting rights, has delegated a tremendous amount of authority to the states and unexpectedly given progressive reformers a new opening to protect such rights at the state level. Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, for example, seven states have voted directly on abortion, and in all seven states — red and blue alike — abortion rights advocates have won.

Michigan is one promising national model for how state-level activists can retake the power of their state governments. This notion would have been laughable a decade ago. After Republicans took control of the state following the 2010 election, Michigan was a bastion of minority rule. Over the course of the decade, Republicans routinely received a minority of votes for the State Legislature but won a majority of seats thanks to extreme partisan gerrymandering that allowed them to “cram ALL of the Dem garbage,” in the words of one G.O.P. staff member, into as few seats as possible.

It was the failure of Michigan’s broken political institutions that led to an unlikely movement for reform. Two days after the 2016 election, dismayed by the Michigan government’s detachment from voters, Katie Fahey, a 27-year-old political novice from the Grand Rapids area, posted on Facebook before leaving for work: “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan. If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know.” She added a smiley face emoji for a millennial touch.

Ms. Fahey founded a group, Voters Not Politicians, to put an initiative on the ballot calling for an independent citizens commission, instead of the State Legislature, to draw new political districts. Within 110 days 428,000 signatures had been collected with the help of more than 4,000 volunteers, many recruited through social media, and no paid staff members; a rare feat in Michigan history.

In 2018, 61 percent of voters approved their ballot initiative. The same year, the state chapters of the A.C.L.U., League of Women Voters and N.A.A.C.P. spearheaded another ballot initiative, which was passed by 67 percent of voters, that greatly expanded voter access in the state through policies like automatic and Election Day registration and no-excuse absentee voting.

Four years later, the two coalitions came together again, to pass a third ballot initiative, expanding early voting and combating election subversion after Mr. Trump’s 2020 attempt to overturn the presidential vote in the state; the new law requires election results be certified with no interference from partisans. Voters also approved ballot initiatives legalizing recreational marijuana in 2018 and enshrining the right to “reproductive freedom” in the state Constitution in 2022.

These pro-democracy measures transformed Michigan politics: In 2022, Democrats flipped control of the Legislature for the first time in 40 years after the distribution of seats finally followed the popular vote totals under new maps drawn by the citizens redistricting commission. The state set a record for voter turnout in a midterm, with the highest participation rate among young voters in the country. With the help of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, Michigan became a blueprint for how a state can shift from minority rule to majority rule.

Direct democracy, a crucial tool used in Michigan to expand democratic rights, is not a panacea. Only roughly half the states offer ballot initiatives, and even in those that do, lawmakers frequently try to undermine them, by making it harder to get such initiatives on the ballot through onerous signature requirements and other red tape or by raising the bar needed to approve them, from simple majorities to supermajorities.

From 2010 to 2022, state-level Republicans introduced 255 bills seeking to restrict the ballot initiative process. “You put very sexy things like abortion and marijuana on the ballot, and a lot of young people come out and vote,” the former Republican senator Rick Santorum complained in November 2023 after Ohio voters rejected an attempt to undercut the initiative process

Still, state constitutions were specifically designed to be a majoritarian counterweight to the countermajoritarian features of America’s national political institutions. States like Michigan, Ohio and Arizona that allow citizen-led ballot initiatives offer a pathway toward expanding democracy that is currently foreclosed on the federal level, barring a huge national movement for systemic reform.

State constitutions empower popular majorities in ways that the federal Constitution does not. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Michigan Constitution can be amended by voters through a simple majority vote and has been rewritten three times through state constitutional conventions since its drafting in 1835, most recently in 1963. That constitution reflected the values of the civil rights movement, including protections against racial discrimination and safeguarding civil and political rights.

Of course, the fact that state institutions are more responsive to popular majorities than the federal Constitution, which was designed in part to limit democratic participation, means they can swing in both directions. In recent years, some states, like Michigan and Wisconsin, have shifted to the left, while others, such as North Carolina, have moved right. Pitched partisan battles are being waged over previously obscure and relatively apolitical institutions, like state supreme courts, as the stakes have grown.

Republicans currently control state legislatures in 28 states, and while Democrats have little chance of winning in some of the reddest areas, the Michigan model is a potential testing ground for other purple states like Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, where Republicans hold majorities in the legislature despite President Biden carrying the state in 2020.

The protection of key rights at the state level has major implications for 2024. Organizing around important state-level democracy issues — rolling back gerrymandering, expanding ballot access and combating election subversion, passing state constitutional amendments — could also aid Democrats nationally. These efforts would engage more voters and remind them that they have a voice in the political process, and when state governments become more responsive to the will of the people, voters come to see that there’s a real point to voting and will be more willing to turn out in presidential elections, too.

This can benefit Democratic candidates by boosting turnout among the disaffected liberals who stopped participating in their local elections, convinced that their vote wouldn’t make a difference because Republicans had so rigged the system. Restoring legitimacy to the democratic process is one of the fundamental lessons Michigan has to offer.

Ari Berman is the national voting rights correspondent at Mother Jones and the author of “Minority Rule: The Right-Wing Attack on the Will of the People — and the Fight to Resist It.”

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