The GOP’s Redistricting Choice

March 29, 2011


Considering the Democratic histrionics that have stymied the 2011 legislature, you could hardly blame Republicans if they used the reapportionment process to stick it to the opposition. For the public’s sake, let’s hope they don’t.

There are only two things that lawmakers absolutely must accomplish before adjourning for the year. One is to pass a budget. The other is to draw congressional and state legislative districts to reflect the latest census data. None of the items Democrats have been protesting, from labor law to school vouchers, is a do-or-die issue.

Reapportionment is. It is the only duty explicitly spelled out in the Indiana Constitution: “The General Assembly elected during the year in which a federal decennial census is taken shall fix by law the number of Senators and Representatives and apportion them according to the number of inhabitants in each district, as revealed by that federal decennial census.”

It’s tradition for the party in power to draw legislative districts in their own favor — a.k.a. gerrymandering — and in light of solid GOP majorities in both chambers, it would be easy to do. But public attitudes about redistricting have evolved as interest groups have taken more active roles in designing alternative maps. Almost anybody with the right software and census data can take a stab at an activity once reserved for smoke-filled rooms. Chances are that blatantly partisan districts would incense the voters.

Gerrymandering hurts democracy in several ways. Because it reduces electoral competition, it helps incumbents stay in power and lessens their accountability to voters. It contributes to voter apathy. Some districts lean so heavily to one party that voters in the opposing party don’t bother to go to the polls.

Although the term gerrymandering and the practice date to at least 1812, when a Massachusetts district was drawn to look like a salamander, it’s gotten more pernicious. With today’s sophisticated software, lawmakers can precisely design districts with a partisan edge that will last for the better part of a decade. As a result, according to Americans for Redistricting Reform, the 2002 election was “less competitive than any post-redistricting election since 1962.”

Former Secretary of State Todd Rokita, now a Republican congressman, has championed removing politics entirely from the redistricting process. In 2009, he put forth a plan that would have required legislative maps to:

    * Respect existing political boundaries such as county and township lines.
    * Keep together communities of interest, such as school districts, rural areas, urban neighborhoods and industrial neighborhoods.
    * Create more compact and geographically uniform districts.
    * “Nest” two house districts under the existing lines of a senate district.
    * Not use any political data including incumbent addresses.

Lawmakers didn’t embrace Rokita’s plan when he presented it — they saw it as meddling — and now that he’s moved on to Washington they’re less apt to do so. That’s unfortunate.

Sen. Sue Landske, R-Cedar Lake, chair of the Senate Elections Committee, said political variables like incumbent addresses are not a priority with her, but “you can’t really take politics out of the process.”

Top priority, she said, is complying with the constitutional requirement that “the territory in each district shall be contiguous.” She hopes to avoid splitting up government units like townships, and she said she wouldn’t accept a meandering distorted-looking district, such as U.S. House District 4, which Rokita somewhat ironically represents. Her committee has scheduled eight hearings across the state to ensure public input.

Landske is not promising to draw apolitical lines, but wouldn’t it be refreshing if she and her colleagues did?

This is a chance for Republicans to claim moral high ground. House Democrats, who fled to an Illinois hotel rather than debate issues in public, look silly.  If Republicans draw compact districts that respect county and township borders and communities of interest, Democrats will have nothing to do but vote yes. Republicans can brag that they pursued the common good while the minority party spent the bulk of the session throwing a tantrum.

Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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