Voters: Go and Gerrymander no More

October 11, 2010

For release noon Oct. 12 and thereafter

A GOP takeover of the Indiana House would put Republicans in control of redistricting in the 2011 legislature. This makes it all the more important that voters get candidates on record now. It would be way too tempting for Republicans to use their majority status to draw lines that favor their party for the next decade.

Secretary of State Todd Rokita, a Republican running for the 4th District congressional seat, has kept the issue in the spotlight, despite the fact he will no longer be Indiana’s chief election officer. His redistricting reform proposal would require more compact districts that honor township and county borders to the extent possible and prohibit use of political data, such as incumbents’ addresses, in drawing lines.
           
Rokita recently wrote candidates for the legislature to urge them to support redistricting reform. Last year he launched a Facebook campaign to identify supporters. At last count, his Rethinking Redistricting page had 470 friends. He’s also asking citizens to sign a Facebook petition by clicking the “Like” button at the top of the “I Support Rethinking Redistricting” page.
           
Some legislators, even in his own party, would rather Rokita mind his own business, he said. “It would have been easier for me not to champion this. I’m a reformer. We’re trying to get government back in the hands of the people.”
           
Pleas for redistricting reform are heard every 10 years as legislatures redraw state and federal house districts to reflect the latest census data. The purpose is to make sure that legislative bodies based on proportional representation remain proportional, meeting the Supreme Court standard of “one person, one vote.”
           
The problem occurs when legislators engage in gerrymandering, a practice as old as politics but made easier by 21st-century software that can combine political data and census numbers to draw districts that favor one party or the other.
           
Just ask Rokita. He considers the 4th District “one of the worst examples” of distortion. The district has been described as wrench-shaped and sprawling, extending over all or parts of 12 counties from Monticello on the north to Mitchell on the south. It’s one of the most Republican districts in the country, which is why Rokita is considered a shoe-in to replace retiring Rep. Steve Buyer.
           
One of the most troublesome consequences of gerrymandering is just that: Elected officials end up picking voters, not the other way around. As the 2005 Redistricting Reform Conference noted, “If all districts are gerrymandered to be lopsided and non-competitive, political power shifts from the voters to the mapmakers. And if the voters can never ‘throw the bums out,’ eventually their legislatures may be filled with them.”
           
Legislatures are filled with incumbents, and gerrymandered districts are one reason why. Political scientists define a district as competitive if the election is decided by 10 points or fewer – about 10 percent of congressional races. In 2004, for example, 27 of 435 House races were competitive.
           
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states have implemented redistricting reform in the form of non-political commissions. Some commissions draw up the plans, others advise the legislatures and a few merely serve as a backup if the legislature fails to come up with something.
           
State Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, advocates the commission approach because of the “inherent conflict of interest” when legislators make policy that affects their political futures. However, he believes it would take a constitutional amendment to create a commission in Indiana, and there’s no time for that before the 2011 redistricting. He’ll back any legislation requiring mapmakers to respect communities of interest.
           
He and Rokita are hopeful a Republican victory will advance the cause. Rokita noted that redistricting reform has made headway twice in recent years, once in the Senate under current President Pro Tem David Long, and once in the House when Republicans held the majority and Brian Bosma was speaker. Delph said Governor Mitch Daniels’ support of redistricting reform will be helpful.
           
So would a loud statement from voters that they won’t tolerate gerrymandering any more. For more information about Rokita’s proposal, click here.

Andrea Neal, an adjunct scholar of the foundation, is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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