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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, December 27, 2017 1:00 am

Editorial

The time is now. Lawmakers must hear from their constituents: Redistricting reform is their first priority

What you can do

• Call or write your Indiana House representative and state senator

For state representatives:

1-800-382-9842

For state senators: 1-800-382-9467

Mailing address:

200 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, IN 46204

• Follow and contact your elected officials through social media

• Attend Third House or legislative town hall sessions to call for redistricting reform

• Learn more about redistricting by attending a presentation hosted by Allen County AARP Chapter 187, at 2 p.m. Jan. 4 at the Community Foundation, 555 E. Wayne St.

Two state senators left a gift under the legislative Christmas tree last week; Indiana voters must insist it is put to use fixing a broken electoral system.

Senate Bill 159 would create a bipartisan commission to draw legislative and congressional districts. It's not as strong a bill as the redistricting measure killed in the last session, but it can serve as the vehicle that eventually could allow voters to choose their representatives rather than elected officials selecting their own voters. 

Republicans John Ruckelshaus of Indianapolis and Michael Bohacek of Michiana Shores are co-authors of the bill, which would create a nine-member commission composed of four state lawmakers – one from each political caucus – and five members of the public. The latter would be selected by a committee of public university presidents.

House and Senate Democrats have identified redistricting reform as a priority for the session, but the issue doesn't rate a mention on Republican leadership agendas. While the General Assembly's “short” session doesn't include a budget-writing task, the March 14 adjournment deadline is a handy excuse to ignore SB 159.

Hoosiers should not allow it because time is running short. New electoral maps are due in 2021, following the decennial census. A U.S. Supreme Court case, Whitford v. Gill, could bring an end to gerrymandering, but it's not a guarantee.

More important, reform is sorely needed. In a state divided roughly 55-45 between Republican and Democratic voters, the GOP currently holds 40 of 50 Senate seats and 71 of 100 House seats, affording the GOP supermajority status in both chambers. The party holds seven of Indiana's nine congressional seats.

Indiana enjoyed some partisan balance after redistricting efforts in 1991 and 2001 because a Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House required old-fashioned political bargaining. When Republicans won a supermajority in 2010, however, they drew maps such that Democratic voters were expertly split among Republican-majority districts or packed into a handful of Democratic-majority districts. Republican Rep. Dan Leonard's District 50, winding from the Huntington-Wabash county line to Fairfield Avenue in Fort Wayne, is an example of the former. Democratic Rep. Phil GiaQuinta's District 80, compactly covering most of southeast Fort Wayne, is an example of the latter.

Gerrymandering discourages electoral participation and creates polarization, with the extreme voices in each party gaining undue influence. That's apparent in Indiana Republican contests today, with far-right candidates challenging more-moderate incumbents on hot-button issues such as abortion.

But Democrats gerrymandered districts when they had the opportunity. Ruckels-haus, co-author of the redistricting bill, points out he was a victim as a House member in 1992.

“Democrats controlled the Indiana House and they drew me out,” he told WISH-TV last week. “They literally went down my street and drew my house in with another representative, and I was out of the legislature.”

Voters have an opportunity with SB 159 to ensure redistricting is done more fairly. A similar bill won overwhelming public support in the last session before Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, single-handedly killed it by refusing to call for a vote. Legislative leaders could have revived it but chose not to.

Without pressure from their constituents, lawmakers will take another pass on redistricting reform. By 2019, they can claim there's no time to do it properly before redistricting in 2021. Tell them this session is the time to do it.