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Wednesday, March 16, 2016 5:36 pm

Lawmakers rethinking redistricting

Niki Kelly The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Halfway through the decade, lawmakers are getting serious about changing how state and federal legislative districts are drawn.

"We need to move on this discussion and I think this is the year to do that," Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said.

Under current law, the Indiana House and Senate draw new congressional and legislative maps every 10 years after the census.

But a handful of states have moved to independent or bipartisan commissions to eliminate many of the political considerations in drawing maps that favor one party over another.

Technology today allows maps to be easily manipulated to constantly gauge the political leanings of voters in specific areas. They also can be drawn specifically to avoid two incumbents facing off in the same new district.

The Indiana House voted 77-20 last year to move to a redistricting commission. But the measure stalled in the Senate.

Long said this week that the likely first move is to establish a summer study committee to vet the idea.

Usually this would be seen as a defeat but supporters of the measure concede the complexities of the issue call for some extra study that likely can’t happen during a busy legislative session.

Then the General Assembly could enact the law in 2016 for the 2020 census. New maps would be drawn in 2021.

"This is a big public policy change and there are big questions that have to be answered. To do it right it’s probably going to take some time. I want this done right," said Julia Vaughn, policy director for public watchdog Common Cause Indiana.

"It’s the ultimate conflict of interest for politicians to draw their own districts. It amounts to politicians choosing their voters."

Democrats have been pushing the issue for a few years but key Republicans are also now jumping on board.

"I don’t think right now the way we do our redistricting has credibility with the public. People assume we draw squiggly lines for the party in power. It’s all about politics – not democracy. We need to change that perception and that reality," said Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson.

Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, isn’t surprised the issue is getting traction.

"This is a national trend that needs to be addressed. Indiana might as well get ahead of it," he said. "There is a growing awareness of the gerrymandering that has happened."

Vaughn said politically motivated maps lead to districts that aren’t competitive. For instance, 44 Indiana House races last year were uncontested in the general election. And that directly leads to low voter turnout, she said.

But there are some key things to be decided before moving to an independent or bipartisan commission.

The first is whether Indiana lawmakers have to amend the state Constitution.

The Constitution says the General Assembly shall "fix by law the number of Senators and Representatives and apportion them among districts according to the number of inhabitants in each district, as revealed by that federal decennial census."

So the question is whether having a commission violates the Constitution.

There are various ways to attack the issue. The first is to have the commission draw the maps and require the legislature to adopt them. Another is to require the legislature to pass a bill to reject or overrule the maps.

Vaughn prefers something similar to Washington’s system, in which the legislature has an opportunity to tweak the maps slightly.

For instance, lawmakers could be limited to moving no more than 2 percent of a district.

"There is some wisdom in this because legislators do know their district," she said.

Vaughn doesn’t believe it’s necessary to change the Constitution though she acknowledged an Arizona case "is a big wild card." In fact, it could invalidate all states using such a commission.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule sometime this year. Arizona legislative leaders sued and they contend the U.S. Constitution allows the boundaries to be drawn only by the lawmakers.

The U.S. Constitution says that the "times, places and manner" of electing members of Congress "shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof."

That’s the way it occurred in Arizona before 2000. Then voters amended the statute to create the five-member commission, charging it with drawing both legislative and congressional lines.

The new commission then crafted lines for the coming decade.

Vaughn said this case might not be decided until after the Indiana legislative session, which is another reason that a blue-ribbon commission might work better.

Long said if the measure does require a constitutional amendment, the process must start in 2017 at the latest.

Another key factor to consider is who serves on the commission and how they are chosen. A commission can be truly independent or bipartisan depending on how many members are of one political party.

The bill that passed last year in Indiana gave legislative leaders the appointments to the panel.

Vaughn said legislative appointments are typical but it’s hard to understand how such a body could be independent even with restrictions on how recently a person could be in public service.

She pointed to California as having an innovative selection process.

Anyone could send an application in to a review panel, which then took the best applications to an even number of each major political party and independent voters. Legislative leaders then struck a few possible members.

A random drawing selects the first eight members of the commission and then that group chooses the remaining members from the rest of the applications.

A third major area is what criteria any commission should consider in drawing maps. This includes population, racial makeup, compactness, competitiveness, contiguity and more.

"The argument is technology makes it incredibly easy to draw political boundaries that still look like good government," Downs said. "And the noncompetitive districts kill voter turnout. If you have more competitive districts you end up with more competitive elections which brings more voices to the table."

nkelly@jg.net