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Sunday, November 19, 2017 1:00 am

Editorial

Toward a healthier democracy

John M. Mutz is a former lieutenant governor of Indiana. He served two terms in the Indiana House and two terms as a state senator. Mutz also is the former chairman of the Indiana Chamber's political action committee. When he spoke before an Indianapolis City-County Council panel last month, it wasn't as a nonpartisan.

“I am a Republican,” Mutz said proudly. “And I have a history as a member of the Republican Party and a participant in its activities for at least 60 years. I come here because I am deeply concerned about the chaos that exists in our country, largely due to bickering and the inability of elected representatives at any level – particularly in the Congress of the United States and sometimes in the legislatures of our states – to reach compromise.”

Mutz's concern should be shared by every Hoosier. The dysfunction and overreach created by partisan gerrymandering make redistricting reform the most important task facing the Indiana General Assembly in its next session.

When lawmakers convene Tuesday for their annual Organization Day, they'll hear a clamor for change in a new “All IN for Democracy” campaign. They shouldn't adjourn next year without progress toward establishing a nonpartisan commission to direct redistricting in 2021.

“If I didn't think this was important, I wouldn't be here,” Mutz, 82, told the Indianapolis committee. “I'm hopeful this grassroots movement that these nonpartisan organizations have started will eventually result in the kind of changes that the resolution calls for. I'm convinced this is one of the most important steps we, as a democracy, can take.”

The grassroots movement drew about 30 people to a Fort Wayne church on Nov. 4 to learn about redistricting reform. Nearly 100 showed up in Columbus for a similar session last week; about 300 in Franklin last month. Redistricting reform drew residents in New Albany, Indianapolis and Greencastle as frustration builds over a process that allows incumbent politicians to choose their own voters in districts drawn to partisan advantage. 

The result is the chaos Mutz described, with maps drawn to create “safe” districts for both Republican and Democratic incumbents, who face no electoral pressure. Minority interests are underserved or ignored as incumbents cater to those at the partisan extremes. Moderation is discouraged and the need to compromise is lost, as the former lieutenant governor noted.

Electoral map-drawing always has been a contentious undertaking. When Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed off on his state's electoral districts in 1812, a political cartoonist for the Boston Gazette dubbed the salamander-shaped districts as “gerrymandered,” giving title to the practice of drawing electoral boundaries to one party's advantage.

But technology has taken gerrymandering to a new level. What used to be done with a calculator, Mutz recalled, is now done with sophisticated software.

“Today, we can draw a district map, alter it slightly, press the button and all of the rest of them are automatically produced,” he told the Indianapolis panel. “This change in technology is not just a small item. It did greatly affect the process of what we are talking about. This is a highly partisan map. It's an example of how a party in power exercises its leverage.”

In Republican-controlled Indiana, the result is that 57 percent of Hoosiers supported Republican candidates in 2014, but the GOP ended up with control of 70 percent of the Indiana House seats and seven of nine congressional districts.

Common Cause Indiana Director Julia Vaughn, who led the Fort Wayne redistricting workshop, noted gerrymandering is a bipartisan practice.

“Let's be clear,” she said. “Democrats in Indiana have gerrymandered as much as Republicans, but they didn't get the opportunity to draw the maps in 2011. There are no angels here.”

Indiana's worst-in-the-nation electoral turnout in 2014 should have been no surprise. Redistricting created non-competitive races and eliminated communities of interest, Vaughn said.

“People aren't being irrational when they don't bother to vote,” she said. “People want to be represented by someone in their community.”

Prospects for reform looked strong with House Bill 1014 last year. The measure would have created a nine-member commission appointed by legislative leaders.

It wasn't a perfect bill, but it was a sound vehicle to move toward nonpartisan redistricting before a single committee chairman, Rep. Milo Smith of Columbus, killed it in the House Elections and Apportionment Committee. Legislative leaders could have revived it, but a transportation funding bill took precedence.

No such legislation stands in the way of reform this year. 

“I share the view that gerrymandering is a threat to democracy today,” former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Theodore R. Boehm said in remarks that followed Mutz's presentation. “This is serious business. There is no single step that can be taken that will improve the state of the republic more than eliminating partisan gerrymandering.”