When Rep. Marlin Stutzman announced this month he would seek Sen. Dan Coats’ open seat in 2016, the ground almost rumbled with candidates scrambling to make a bid for the congressman’s 3rd District seat.
Make that Republican candidates. Maps drawn by the GOP-controlled General Assembly after the 2010 census expertly carved the party’s voters into legislative and congressional districts nearly impervious to Democratic gain. The result discourages viable candidates from outside of GOP ranks. It pushes moderates to partisan extremes and concentrates power in the hands of a few.
And it is likely the reason that voters are staying away from the polls. Fewer than a third of registered voters cast ballots in November. Indiana’s election turnout was the worst in the nation.
That could change.
A bill approved by the General Assembly this year shows that legislative leaders recognize the beast they created. A loyal opposition with greater clout might have kept the Statehouse majority from veering into a damaging and costly religious freedom debate. Indiana might have sent representatives to the U.S. House who could have helped avoid the partisan gridlock.
House Bill 1003 creates a panel to consider a statewide redistricting commission. The next census is five years away, but citizens need to speak now for a truly independent process.
"Gerrymandering has been around since the 1800s, but it’s possible to take it to an art form now," said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW. He said GPS maps allow mapmakers to draw districts that seem to do everything they should: Follow obvious boundaries, keep communities of interest together, create compact areas instead of oddly shaped districts.
But the sophisticated mapping tools also allow for districts virtually immune to a successful challenge. In Indiana, Republicansbenefit but other states see the same tools used to Democratic advantage, Downs said.
As chairman of the Allen County Democratic Party, John Court is among those party officials who have to recruit candidates and campaign workers for contests they have almost no chance of winning. He said he’s happy to see the redistricting process from a policy standpoint.
"When you’ve got gerrymandered districts, it isn’t good for the legislation," he said, "It’s why you see radical ideas coming out of the General Assembly. The legislative districts are drawn to cater to the extremes of the party. It’s unfortunate for people on both sides of the aisle – or the middle of the aisle."
Indiana’s post-redistricting effects are obvious in the 2nd District Congress race. In 2010, Democrat Joe Donnelly won the seat with a 2,500-vote margin over Jackie Walorski, a state representative. In 2012, he opted for a Senate run after redistricting pulled portions of heavily Republican Kosciusko County into the 2nd. Walorski won with a 4,000 vote margin over Democrat Brendan Mullen, a West Point graduate and Army veteran.
And among legislative races, Rep. Phil GiaQuinta saw his Fort Wayne district grow safer as Democratic voters were carved away from more competitive districts, including Win Moses’ District 81. In a state divided roughly 55-45 between Republican and Democratic voters, the GOP captured 40 of 50 Senate seats and 71 of 100 House seats. It holds seven of Indiana’s nine congressional seats.
The first step in creating more balanced maps begins with the 18-month study committee.
Because the legislation calls for members with "experience, training or education in state legislative or congressional office redistricting and reapportionment," the Indiana Coalition for Independent Redistricting will conduct a June 6 training seminar to make sure its supporters qualify.
The coalition, led by Common Cause Indiana and the League of Women Voters of Indiana, offers a slate of committee candidates for the four legislative leaders who will appoint the panel, including former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm, a Democrat, and former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke, a Republican.
Give legislative leaders credit for allowing a redistricting commission discussion to begin. Now, remind them the study should lead to electoral districts that don’t discourage Hoosiers from participating.