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Toolkit for Youth Political Power

Organize. Vote. Run. Lead. Transform.

Electoral Politics

Why Vote?

  • How One Person Can Make a Difference

  • Why Representation Matters

  • Levels of Representation 

Where/When/How to Vote


  • Registering to Vote

  • What does a ballot look like?

  • What are the positions you’re voting people into?

  • What is a Ballot Initiative?

How are citizen voices silenced?


  • Voter Suppression

  • The Voting Rights Act

  • Campaign Finance

  • The Electoral College

  • Prisoners and Voting Rights

  • Gerrymandering

Increasing Citizen Turnout

Solutions to Voting Barriers

  • Same Day Registration

  • Early Voting

  • Discrimination at the Polls: Who to Contact

Where/When/How to Vote

How You Can Make a Difference

  • Know Your Rights

  • Find Reliable Media to Inform Yourself

  • Accuracy & Partisanship in Media

  • How to Be Civically Engaged

Where/When/How to Vote

You Too Can Run for Office

  • The Process

  • The Power of Grassroots Movements

  • Introduction and Networking  

Where/When/How to Vote

  • Law Enforcement and Police Brutality

  • Criminal Legal System

  • School to Prison Pipeline

  • Raise the Age Campaign

Issues of Concern to Young Voters

Why Vote?

Why Vote?

Regardless of whether we are old enough to vote, policies (the principles that guide the government) have a big impact on us, our families, and our community.


Like school for example! Policies affect how schools are run and cared for, what is taught in school, and by whom. Policies also affect community safety, what crimes are, and how to respond to them.

As young people, we're often on the political menu and not sitting at the decision-making table.

It's important for us to take action so that our voices are heard and to encourage adults to support us with how they vote.

Voter participation is a big issue.

Over 90 million eligible voters didn’t vote in 2016!! That means that their voices weren't impacting how our government and society operates.

voter turnout Why Vote.jpg


So who is representing you and your community? What decisions they are making on your behalf? Let's take a look!


Below is a map of elected leadership positions in Michigan.

Branches of MI gov.png

The infographic below breaks down some of the decision-making power our elected officials have in Michigan and how the choices they make impact us.

All Government is Local Government



The Governor can sign and veto laws, enforce laws, and oversee the commander and chief as well as the state's military forces.

State Representatives

Michigan has a State House and State Senate who vote and draft the State laws. This includes policies about public health.


Mayors oversee police, fire, education, housing, and transportation offices.


Judges literally determine life and death, drug convictions, and police convictions to name a few.


Schoolboard members determine the funding allocation in a district. Mad about a cancelled art program or a school shutting down in your community? Go to a school board meeting and advocate for candidates who will protect your school and your programs.

Voting 101



Application Resources

Maps and Precincts


Below is an example of what you ballot may look like:


When completing the ballot, make sure to fill in the bubble completely!


What are the positions we vote for?

The U.S. presidential race gets all the attention, and in that way, it can seem like the star of the nation's electoral movie. It gets the most interviews, the most advertisements on TV, and people often view it as the one election they need to show up for.

Just like no movie would work with just one actor, our government requires a huge cast to make things happen.


The United States Government is split into three levels of leadership. There are the Federal officials, who make choices for our whole country. Then there are State officials, who make decisions for just their own states. And then there are the often overlooked Local officials, who make choices for your local city or township that you may not even know affect your daily life. All three of these levels of government make up the Electoral College and have the final say in who our president is. That's why it's really important that we educate ourselves and vote for people at all levels of government.

As Americans, we choose:

Click on any of the above to learn about the people you have the power to elect.

What is a ballot initiative?

As citizens of the State of Michigan, we get to exercise direct democracy in a way many other states cannot: through ballot measures! Instead of a law going through to be voted on by Congress, the people can vote directly for the law. Ballot initiatives can be addressed to the state government, but they can also be used for local cities and county elections. This is a huge opportunity for us to move change for our communities!

Ballot initiatives come in two types: Direct Initiatives and Indirect Initiatives.

Direct Ballot Initiatives, or constitutional initiatives, go directly to the ballot for election

Indirect Ballot Initiatives, or statute (law) initiatives, are submitted to legislature. 

If the State Congress rejects the initiative, or proposes a different version of it, or if Congress takes too long, some states send it right to the ballot. In other words, Congress might submit a competing ballot measure alongside the original ballot initiative.

If you’d like to see current Michigan ballot initiatives, check out this site:,4670,7-127-1633_41221_62581-339877–,00.html 



A popular referendum is a petition by the people to vote on a new law the legislature has recently passed. The State Congress decides whether to put the legislation on the ballot. Most states (though not all) are able to do this.

You might be asking yourself whether or not these initiatives are effective. In fact, according to the Initiative & Referendum Institute’s Ballotwatch, between 1904 and 2009 there were 2,314 ballot initiatives on state ballots, and 41% of these were approved!

So what’s the process of putting an initiative on the ballot?

1. File the proposed petition with a designated state official.

The petition has to be formatted in a very specific way according to Michigan Law. The Michigan Department of State’s Bureau of Elections offers consultations for formatting the bill to this legally required form (though they can’t offer advice about the actual content of the proposal

In addition to sending the petition as a pdf in an email to, 15 printed copies of the petition must be sent to the Secretary of State, specifically to the Bureau of Elections.

2. Review of the petition to make sure it lines up with statutory requirements.

In Michigan, this is an optional step. Petitioners can (and should, although they don’t have to) submit a copy of their petition to the State Board of Canvassers so they can pre-approve the petition form. If the petition doesn’t have the proper format, all the signatures collected will be thrown out.

3. Preparation of a ballot initiative title and summary.
This step is important because most people only ever read the title and summary of the initiative while they’re voting.

The title and summary are supposed to be unbiased, but whether or not this is always the case is up for debate.

In Michigan, the title of the petition is drafted by the group or people that are filing the initiative want them to. The title and summary of the ballot initiative is drafted by the Director of Elections with the approval of the Board of State Canvassers.

4. Circulate the petition to get the required number of signatures from registered voters (usually a percentage of the votes cast for a statewide office in the preceding general election).

Referendum petitions can circulate from the date the law was enacted by legislature until 90 days after the legislative session that the law was enacted during.

Only signatures collected 180 days before the petition is filed (step 5) can be counted. Petitioners can only file with their signatures all at once–they can’t file with some signatures and then submit more signatures later.

There is a minimum signature requirement before a petition can be considered. Usually petitioners need way more signatures than the minimum required, because so many of them won’t pass the verification process (in step 5).

Ballot initiatives that make new laws or amend current laws need 252,523 signatures to be considered.

Ballot initiatives that amend the State Constitution need 315,654 signatures.

Referendum require 157,827 signatures.

5. Submit the petition to the state elections official, who verifies the number of signatures.

In Michigan, you file the petition with the Michigan Department of State’s Bureau of Elections.

Once a proposed ballot initiative has gone through this process, it’s placed on the ballot during the next general election.

If the proposal was for a referendum, the law the referendum is trying to overturn is suspended until the election can happen.

To become a law, it needs to receive a majority vote.


If you’d like to learn more about the details of Michigan ballot initiative petitioning, you can check that out here:


A big ballot proposal about gerrymandering is coming up this 2018 election. You can learn more about that by clicking here. 



Elected Officials

Elected Officials


Everyone knows we have a President (and most people know they’re elected every four years) but Americans vote for so many other federal officials!

If we want to have a say about who runs the country, we need to vote for who represents our State in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.


Michigan gets to choose two people to send to the Senate at Washington DC to make choices on the behalf of our state, and our state gets to choose 14 people to represent us in the House of Representatives. The whole state of Michigan decides who our senators will be, but each of the state’s 14 Congressional Districts chooses their own Representative for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Federal Senators

Every two years 1/3 of the 100 United States Senate seats are up for reelection (that’s 33 to 34 people that voters can either keep or replace). Senators keep their job for a 6-year term. That means in 2022 the Michigan U.S. Senate Seat currently held by Senator Debbie Stabenow will be up for election, and in 2020 the seat held by Senator Gary Peters will also be up for election. Voters can choose to keep these two in office (they are considered “incumbent” because they already have the position), or we can vote for new people to take their place.

Federal Representatives

Every two years all 435 U.S. House of Representative seats are up for election. U.S. Representative keep their job for a 2 year term. Every two years Michigan gets to choose their 14 representatives all over again. Unlike senate elections, the whole state doesn’t decide together who the 14 people will be. Instead, citizens are split into 14 groups of people (with about 710,000 people per group). These 14 groups of people are called “Congressional Districts”.


The Michigan State Government is divided into the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch.

The Executive Branch includes the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney General.

The Legislative Branch includes senators and representatives of the Michigan Senate and the Michigan House of Representatives.

The Judicial Branch includes the Supreme Court of Michigan, The Court of Appeals, and various trial courts.

Michigan Citizens get to decide who fills each and every one of the top positions within each of these various branches of government.





There are multiple levels to the judicial system in the United States. The first division between them is that some are “Federal Courts” and some are “State and Territorial Courts.” The Federal Courts deal with, well, federal laws. They have the authority of the federal government. No federal judges are elected by the people. The State and Territorial courts deal with state and US territory laws, and have the authority of these states and territories. In Michigan, most of these judges are elected.

Michigan State Courts

The State of Michigan divides its courts into miscellaneous limited-jurisdiction trial courts, trial courts called Circuit Courts, the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court. Because the federal and state levels both use the term “circuit courts”, it’s important to specify whether you mean “Federal circuit court” or “State circuit court”.

State Judges are chosen in nonpartisan elections, in other words, they do not run as “Republican” or “Democrat”. However, this does not mean that they do not have partisan beliefs or ways of deciding the law that are ideologically similar to one of the political parties. The word “nonpartisan” can, in this way, be misleading. And in the case of State Supreme Court judges, political parties can nominate them at political party conventions or through a nominating petition.

Trial Courts

District Courts deal with traffic violations, misdemeanors, landlord-tenant conflicts, and all civil cases with claims up to but under $25,000.

There are 100 of these district courts, and district court judges are elected for 6 year terms.
Circuit Courts deal with felonies, civil cases with claims over $25,000, and family law.

It includes a family division that deals with juvenile criminal cases, divorce, paternity, guardianship, adoption, safe newborn delivery, minor-emancipation, child abuse, personal protection actions (PPOs and enforcement), name changes, and “friend of the court” (the office that handles “domestic relations” in cases involving minor children).

The court also hears case appeals from the other trial courts (like the district courts) or administrative agencies.

In Michigan there are 57 Circuit Courts, 221 judges, and each judge is elected to serve a 6 year term.

Probate Courts deal with wills, administers estates and trusts, appoints guardians and conservators, and orders psychological treatment.

There are 78 of these courts and their judges are elected to 6 year terms.

Since there are so many judges in all of these courts, nearly every election on an even year will include the election of a Circuit Court, District Court or Probate Court Justice in your area. If you’d like to know what your district court or circuit court district is, check out the maps below.


Appellate Courts

The “Court of Appeals” deals with appeals cases. Any final order from a circuit court, or from some probate courts and orders from agencies.

Court of Appeals hearings are held in the capital, Lansing, as well as in Detroit and Grand Rapids, all year (and in the spring and fall, they are also heard in Marquette and in a location somewhere in the Northern Lower Peninsula).

A panel of three judges decide Court of Appeals cases. The panels are rotated between cases, so the three judges don’t always decide a case together. Two of these judges must agree on a ruling.

Only the Michigan Supreme Court can overrule a Court of Appeals decision (or a special Court of Appeals panel).

The Michigan Court of Appeals is also home to the Michigan Court of Claims. This is the court where claims for money damages of over $1,000 against the State of Michigan are heard. Four Court of Appeals judges are assigned to the Court of Claims and each Court of Claims case is heard by a single judge.

Before 2012, there were supposed to be 28 judges on the Court of Appeals. After 2012, it was decided that there should be 24 judges. The 4 judges already on the court were meant to be lost by “attrition”. This means that when the person holding that seat’s position are done with their 6 year term, they can choose to stand for re-election, or they can retire and their position will no longer exist (until 4 judges retire).

Barriers to Voting

Barriers to Voting

Voter Suppression

Stricter voting laws are problematic because they will make it harder for low income and marginalized voters to obtain a state ID card and birth certificates.

As of December 2016 : Michigan voters without photo identification could still cast a ballot under an affidavit, but they would have to bring an ID to their local clerk’s office within 10 days of an election in order for their vote to count.

The Voting Rights Act

Campaign Finance

In the Gilded Age of U.S. history, money and corruption was the norm in politics. Even the party machines that were supposed to represent the people’s wishes were overhauled by the interests of those with wealth and power like “Boss” Tweed in the late nineteenth century. These problems would be washed away with the introduction of “trust-busting” and new campaign finance laws that made it more difficult for the wealthy to buy off corrupt politicians in the Progressive Era. But with the Supreme Court decision of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the political environment has suddenly shifted back towards the Gilded Age all over again.

The Electoral College

In each presidential election year, a group of candidates for elector is nominated by political parties and other groupings in each state, usually at a state party convention, or by the party state committee. It is these elector-candidates, rather than the presidential and vice presidential nominees, for whom the people vote in the November election, which is held on Tuesday after the first Monday in November. In most states, voters cast a single vote for the slate of electors pledged to the party presidential and vice presidential candidates of their choice. The slate winning the most popular votes is elected; this is known as the winner-take-all, or general ticket, system.

Each state has a number of electors in the electoral college proportionate to its population: the sum of its number of senators (always two) and representatives in the House.

Technically, Americans on election day cast votes for electors, not the candidates themselves, although in most cases the electors’ names are not on the ballot.

California, the most populous state, has 55 electoral votes. A few small states and the District of Columbia have only three.

Today, the electoral college has 538 electors, and in all but two states, Maine and Nebraska, all of the state’s electors are awarded to the winner of the popular vote within that state.

The problem with the Electoral College
Although the electoral college has been an established institution for years, it is an incredibly undemocratic system. This is because a president can be elected despite their opponent’s receiving a larger popular vote. This was seen in our past 2016 Presidential election when Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.6 million votes but still lost the presidential election to Trump as he had won enough electoral votes. So in our current system, it does not matter if you won the popular vote because you can only win the presidency through the electoral college. As explained above, this is very undemocratic because the electoral college allocates delegates in a winner-take-all fashion. So if 49% of voters voted for one candidate in a particular state, their votes would get zero representation because this rule gives all the delegates to the other candidate who received 51% (or more) of the votes.

One of the arguments made in favor of the electoral college is that it serves to emphasize small states and make them more important to the candidates. This might sound beneficial in theory, but it undermines simple democratic ideology. If electoral votes were distributed proportionately, Wyoming would only have one vote based on its low population. But instead, Wyoming voter’s choice is inflated to three times more than it should be.

The Electoral College was originally created to serve as a barrier between the people and the Government, to prevent a mistake from the constituents they hardly trusted. Today, however, Americans are much more educated. Increased literacy and the engulfing nature of social media has made it extremely easy to be an informed voter.

After witnessing President Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the 2016 presidential election, it is very clear that the electoral college as an institution should be abolished. Although, this would not be an easy task. Since it is included in our Constitution, getting rid of it would require a constitutional amendment. That means receiving a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate and the ratification of three-fourths (38) of the 50 states. Since the Democrats lost the presidency, the Senate, and the House, a constitutional amendment to abolish the electoral college is not likely to be proposed in a GOP-controlled Congress. Given a situation where it is passed in Congress, it is highly unlikely that 38 states would ratify it. Red states are likely to not support the idea as the electoral college has been perceived as beneficial for the Republican Party. There also may not be much support from swing states either as it would mean losing their important position in the presidential campaign.

The only option that we as a community have in order to work towards eliminating this system is to launch a national campaign that makes the case that this institution isn’t right and goes against all of our democratic principles. We must inform voters that the last two elections in 16 years have gone to the candidate with fewer votes. This just isn’t what a true democracy should look like.

For a more visual explanation, watch the video below.

The Incarcerated/Returning Citizen Population and Voting Rights

We know about how dismally low of a turnout rate there is when it comes to elections, especially midterms and local elections. But why is it so low? A portion of that reason has to do with the 6.1 million returning citizens and/or incarcerated citizens who have been denied their right to vote in their respective state. Based on a state’s laws, significant parts of the electorate can be wiped off the voting rolls like the grandfather clauses did for African Americans in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.


For example, 10.43% of Florida’s eligible voters are disenfranchised for life due to harsh laws on felons when they enter the penitentiary system and even after they leave it. In terms of population numbers, that is nearly 1.7 million people. A utterly shocking statistic when taking into consideration how large of a swing state Florida is. Anyone remember the 2000 Presidential Election? Only two other states have lifetime disenfranchisement policies for all returning citizens: Iowa and Kentucky. But even though the other 47 states don’t have this specific policy, they do have some laws that make it difficult for incarcerated citizens to be treated like any other non-incarcerated citizen. For instance, the state of Michigan makes it illegal for someone in prison to vote. And another law in the Michigan Freedom of Information Act declares that:


It is the public policy of this state that all persons, except those persons incarcerated in state or local correctional facilities, are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees, consistent with this act.


This creates a nation of returning citizens and incarcerated citizens who are unable to vote and participate in the democratic process.


Other states have tried to resolve this.


In 2016, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order that gave back the right to vote to 200,000 returning citizens. Moves like these are a way to restore these citizens to a first-class status like everyone else.




Whenever an American votes for their federal, state, or local representatives, they vote in a certain electoral district. Their district is a specific geographic space, and every registered voter within the lines can only vote in that geo-political boundary.

But who decides where the lines between these districts should go?

In Michigan, the state legislature decides–they make the law that decides the district’s boundaries.


When our country was still small and limited to a few states, electoral districts generally just followed the shape of city or town limits. As the U.S. population increased rapidly over time, the number of people each politician represented increased.

For some parts of government, this didn’t matter–many states have Senates modeled after the U.S. Senate. In the U.S. Senate, each state gets two representatives regardless of their population. States whose senate included one representative from each county didn’t care so much whether each state senator represented a similar number of people or not. For other parts, like the federal and states’ House of Representatives, the growing and changing population left citizens with unequal representation.

In the U.S., most elections use a “winner take all” system, where the politician with the most votes wins and they’re supposed to represent all of the people in their district–including the people who didn’t want that politician to represent them. As the populations within each district changed, some districts included way more people than others. In the “winner take all” voting system of the U.S., that meant that in districts with a lot of people there were way more citizens who didn’t vote for the person representing them than in districts with smaller numbers of people (and thus smaller numbers of people who didn’t vote for the person representing them). For example, according to professor Justin Levitt from the Loyola Law School, in the 1960s Los Angeles County had 422 times as many people as California’s smallest district, but because each district elected one senator the people in that smallest district got to have 422 times as much representation on the Senate than LA County citizens.

Citizens needed a better, more fair chance at representation. Federal, state, and local governments started to decrease the number of people each politician represented by increasing the total number of politicians, and by re-draw the boundaries that decided which people a politician represented. Now, these lines are re-drawn every 10 years, after the U.S. Census data is available.

So where does gerrymandering fit into this redistricting?


Gerrymandering happens when districts are drawn so that one political party has an unfair advantage over others. Instead of using the census data to draw fair boundaries, the party in power uses the data to manipulate the districts so that they includes more people who vote for their party. This makes it almost impossible for people who disagree with the party in power to ever win in an election!

When a party “gerrymanders” electoral districts, they ignore federal and state guidelines for redistricting.

Equal Population
The federal government (specifically the U.S. Constitution) specifies that each electoral district within a specific jurisdiction needs to have about the same number of people.

Since there are electoral districts for several levels of government (districts for electing people to U.S. Congress, districts for electing people to the State House of Representatives, districts for electing people to a city council) each set of districts might include different numbers of people, but within a single level of government the electoral districts must be roughly equal in number of people.

Congressional Districts (the ones that elect people to the federal government) must have as close to an equal population as possible according to the Supreme Court in Wesberry v Sanders.

This is the strictest rule for redistricting.

State and local legislative districts (the ones that elect people to the state and local government) must be “substantially” equal according to  the Supreme Court in Reynolds v Sims.

A Supreme Court Case (Brown v Thomson) pointed out that if large and small districts are more than 10% apart in population starts to look suspicious.

Even if the districts have equal numbers of people, they aren’t necessarily fair. Gerrymandering also includes drawing lines so that people of color have less of a say in elections.

Two strategies are used to do this: cracking and packing.

Cracking happens when people of color in one area are separated into a lot of other districts so that there are just a few people of color in each district and they have no power as a group.

Packing happens when people of color are all put into a few voting districts that are almost entirely people of color so that those people of color can’t have voting power in other districts.

You can see a visual example of this process below. Imagine this is a city. The rectangles under “Disproportionate Outcomes” represent ways electoral district lines could be drawn in the city.


On the left you can see that the yellow precincts have been “packed”.

Most of the yellow precincts were put into two voting districts so that they couldn’t have a say in the other three districts.

Even though only 40% of the precincts are Green, they were able to get 60% of the vote because they drew the lines unfairly.

North Carolina’s redistricting was so bad that federal courts deemed it unconstitutional. Despite this ruling they allowed North Carolina to keep their unconstitutionally racist, voter suppressing districts for the 2016 election that allowed Trump a victory.

But how does a court decide whether redistricting is bad enough to be unconstitutional?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 included rules about gerrymandering.

Section 2 of the VRA prohibits voting practices that discriminate based on race, color, or membership to a language minority group. Racialized gerrymandering is illegal under this law.

The VRA applies whether or not the gerrymandering was intended to discriminate along racial lines. It doesn’t matter if the lawmakers say they didn’t intend for their redistricting to discriminate, the impact matters.

There are three ways to test whether electoral districts have been drawn in a way that violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. This three-step process was made during the Supreme Court case Thomburg v Gingles to help determine whether a group has been discriminated against. They’re called “Gingles” conditions.

Compactness: Is the population of people of color concentrated in one “compact” area with relatively regular boundaries so that district lines could be drawn around the population and that district would be mostly people of color.

Does most of the population in question usually vote for the same type of candidate?

“Type of candidate” doesn’t mean democrat or republican, but the type of democrat or type of republican
If the answer is yes, the next question must be asked.

Do voters around this population of people of color usually vote for a “type of candidate” different than the one preferred by the population in question.

If these “Gingles” conditions are met, then courts can consider the situation to determine if it’s a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act does not, however, guarantee voting proportionality. Voting proportionality is when the percentage of minority voters in a total population matches the percentage of districts minority voters could actually elect a candidate they want. If 20% of voters in a state are people of color, and 20% of the districts can already be elected by them, the courts are less likely to say the Voting Rights Act has been violated by gerrymandering.

The Supreme Court has decided it’s okay to consider race when drawing electoral district lines, but without a compelling (court approved) reason, race cannot be the main reason for drawing the lines a certain way.

Gerrymandering is, unfortunately, a huge problem in Michigan.

Every 10 years, after the census data is released, the state congress redraws the lines (and the Governor can approve or veto them). A State House of Representatives committee and a State Senate committee are responsible for this process. Unfortunately, if one party has a majority in the House, the Senate, and the Governor’s position, that party has an unfair advantage when the time for redistricting happens.

The last time districts were drawn in Michigan was in 2011, when the Republican party controlled the House, Senate, and Governor’s office.



Citations .

Learn more about gerrymandering!


If visuals are helpful for you, check out the videos on gerrymandering below. If you prefer learning-by-doing, try these games to learn more:


If you’d like to learn more about gerrymandering in Michigan, and how it impacted the 2016 presidential election, and new ways to measure gerrymanderi