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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, April 16, 2017 1:00 am

Lawmakers must loosen death grip on redistricting

“One man, one vote” has prevailed as a core electoral principle since first stated in a 1964 Supreme Court ruling. But the principle doesn't appear to hold for the Indiana General Assembly, some of whose members claim oversized authority in blocking the redistricting reform needed to preserve it.

After a 12-member study committee spent two years crafting a reform recommendation, eight members recommended last fall that congressional and legislative electoral districts be drawn by an independent redistricting commission. Three of the panel members – all current or former Indiana Senate Republicans – voted no. And when the bill carrying the recommendation came before the House elections committee this year, Republican Chairman Milo Smith refused to call it for a vote, even though hundreds of people showed up at the Statehouse in support. 

Peg Maginn, a member of the League of Women Voters of Fort Wayne and Common Cause Indiana, said the outcome seemed predetermined.

“We were stonewalled,” she said of the February hearing. “We had that place packed. Everyone spoke in favor of the bill, from a self-described housewife to the Indianapolis Chamber. The business community was on board and, supposedly, so was (House Speaker Brian) Bosma. (Smith) let the whole thing go on and then just shut it down.”

The speaker, who co-authored the bill, later told reporters there wasn't enough support in the Senate, so he couldn't justify the House's spending time on it.

How convenient.

Time hasn't been an issue for dozens of unexpected issues this session, but it somehow didn't allow for a bill that would have ended the practice of lawmakers drawing their own districts and, in effect, selecting their own voters. In retrospect, it's likely they never intended to consider House Bill 1014.

Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, was one of three to vote against the redistricting commission recommendation. He said from the outset he didn't believe redistricting reform was necessary. 

Efforts by Democrats to resurrect the redistricting language as an amendment to another bill were unsuccessful, offering more evidence that House and Senate leaders don't want to give up the electoral advantage they now hold, although – in fairness – Democrats didn't attempt to improve redistricting when they held the majority.

Maginn sees some hope in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Wisconsin case introduces something called the “efficiency gap” to calculate the “wasted votes” resulting from packing minority-party votes in a district or breaking them up among several districts. A three-member federal panel agreed in November that the measure revealed a “sizable disparate advantage held by Republicans.”

“This would give us the objective criteria to measure gerrymandering,” Maginn said of the efficiency gap. “This could be a game-changer.”

It could be, but it would be better to see Indiana lawmakers do the right thing.

As the days tick closer to the 2020 Census and the next redistricting cycle, they should agree to remove themselves from map-drawing. Until they do, they leave Hoosier voters with a diminished role in democracy.