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Michigan’s Voters Can Make Laws — Why Can’t North Carolina’s?

Feb 28, 2023 | Elections, Government, North Carolina, Political Parties, Rights, Voters | 1 comment

In 2016, a Michigan woman named Katie Fahey dreaded the arguments to come during Thanksgiving dinner. Political divisions in her family were at their peak after the presidential election. She wondered if there was something her whole family could agree on.

Katie had an idea. Liberals and conservatives in her family each thought elections were rigged in Michigan. After each census, the political party in control of Michigan’s legislature redrew district lines to favor their candidates. Could her entire family support ending gerrymandering in Michigan?

The idea must have worked. Shortly after Thanksgiving, she posted a message to her Facebook page. “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan. If you’re interested in doing this, let me know.”

Katie’s post sparks a movement

The story of what happened next has been told in the media and in a feature film. Here is the short version. Thousands of Michiganders got excited and formed an organization called Voters Not Politicians. They drafted an amendment for the Michigan constitution to establish an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. They gathered 400,000 signatures of registered voters to qualify for the 2018 ballot. The voters of Michigan approved the amendment by a large margin. For the first time in its history, Michigan had a redistricting commission with no politicians in 2021.

Direct democracy in Michigan

Michigan’s constitution has allowed ballot proposals through citizen petitions for over 100 years. This practice of direct democracy is called “initiative and referendum.” Initiatives in Michigan can be used to amend the state’s constitution, enact laws, or veto laws the legislature has passed.

What have Michigan voters accomplished with their initiatives? Over the last 50 years, they have put about two measures on the ballot per statewide election. 21 passed and 27 failed. Some that passed were favored mainly by conservatives, some mainly by liberals, and some won large majorities of both. Here are a few that stand out:

1974: Eliminated sales tax on food and prescription drugs.

1978: Revised standards for granting parole.

1978: Limited taxes imposed by the legislature and units of local government.

1982: Prohibited increases in utility charges without full notice and public hearings.

1992: Set term limits for members of the legislature.

2004: Defined marriage in the Michigan constitution as the union of one man and one woman. (This was later ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.)

2006: Banned the use of affirmative action for hiring in public institutions.

2008: Allowed human embryo and stem cell research in Michigan.

2018: Allowed the recreational use of marijuana by adults.

2018 & 2022: Passed laws to make voting more convenient and prevent harassment of voters.

2018: Created an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

2022: Amended the constitution to provide a right to reproductive freedom.

What about North Carolina?

In North Carolina, citizens do not have the right to add ballot measures like these through voter petitions. Under the North Carolina constitution, only its General Assembly can put proposals on the ballot. Would the people of North Carolina have put measures like Michigan’s on their election ballots if they had the right to? We will never know.

In 1971, the last major revision of the NC constitution was based on a report from the NC State Bar Association. Their report never discussed the option for citizens to have the right of initiative and referendum. The General Assembly never raised the issue and never put the question to a vote of the people.

Why it matters for the next generation

The core idea of democracy is that citizens should have the means to control their government without resorting to violence. Political parties that control governments can becomes abusive, corrupt, or incompetent. When that happens, citizens must have the practical ability to vote them out of office for democracy to function.

But what if the party in control has rigged the system so it is nearly impossible for them to lose? That’s what the citizens of Michigan saw happening when they formed Voters Not Politicians. The direct democracy option of initiative and referendum allowed them to take on the politicians and win.

When our kids and grandkids become adults in the 2040s, will the people of North Carolina be in control of their governments? Or will ambitious politicians have rigged the system to keep themselves in power? Michigan’s example shows the power of citizen initiatives to put a check on the ambitions of those who would try.

North Carolina’s voters deserve the right of initiative and referendum

Wouldn’t the 2024 election be a good time for North Carolina’s voters to give themselves the same rights as Michigan voters? The General Assembly has time in this session to put an Initiative and Referendum Constitutional Amendment on the ballot — and let the voters decide. Why shouldn’t they do it?

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1 Comment

  1. S. M.

    Fantastic op Ed today in the Observer, & more information in your post here. It’s been clear for some time that wealthy individuals large corporations foreign governments and Evangelical leaders co-opted by those groups are the ones manipulating public opinion and in control of our government actual American people have very similar needs across the spectrum but their opinions are swayed by manipulation such as what is clearly obvious occurring with Fox News etc admitted and blatant lies. Politically and media inspired division has sparked violence that has killed hundreds driven families and friends apart and divided our nation. Groups such as Alec funded by those large corporations for their own financial and regulatory benefit have played a long game and one of the basic tools is gerrymandering. Having impartial and scientifically, mathematically accurate voting districts is key to making the US a more just country and will make us not only more wealthy and powerful but kinder as well. Thank you so much for your thoughtful article and for pointing out the movie about this. As the trailer points out, our politicians will fight this tooth and nail because they already don’t serve the people – they’re beholdened to special interests already.

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