If Joe Donnelly stood as Indiana's Democratic Party standard-bearer in the Nov. 6 general election, the 1 million-plus votes he won would appear to represent the party's strength in Indiana. But the 45 percent share of the vote the U.S. senator captured in his failed re-election bid isn't reflected in the lopsided victory Indiana Republicans racked up in congressional and legislative races.
At the federal level, the GOP maintained 78 percent control of Indiana's congressional delegation. At the state level, Republicans will control 80 percent of the Indiana Senate seats; 67 percent of the House seats.
Indiana Republicans field strong candidates and raise impressive amounts of money, but there's no discounting the powerful tool they used in drawing their own electoral districts in 2011. An Associated Press analysis last year used a mathematical tool, the “efficiency gap,” to show how Indiana's legislative districts are drawn to favor Republicans.
In four other states, voters approved redistricting reform ballot measures this month. Colorado and Michigan passed initiatives to give the authority to draw districts to independent commissions. Votes in support of Proposition 4 in Utah, which would do the same, had the lead as ballots continue to be counted there. Ohio voters in May approved use of an independent redistricting commission to end gerrymandering.
Indiana is among the 24 states that do not allow voters to directly cast ballots on legislative measures. But a grassroots effort – the Indiana Coalition for Independent Redistricting – is again pushing for lawmakers to take steps to end gerrymandering, calling on Hoosiers to petition Gov. Eric Holcomb and seek redistricting reform resolutions in their respective city and county councils and commissions.
All IN for Democracy, the coalition's campaign effort, supports a citizen-led commission to draw state and federal legislative districts after each decennial census. The commission would be charged with drawing districts that are substantially equal in population and contiguous. They would have to comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act and, when possible, not divide communities of interest.
The maps would require affirmative recommendation by at least six members of the nine-member panel and would be subject to legislative approval, to comply with constitutional requirements. The goal, however, is to limit the partisan advantage the controlling party now holds and encourage representation that looks more like Indiana as a whole.
Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said one explanation for Indiana's current imbalance, captured by the efficiency gap measure, is that we choose to live near people with similar views.
“It could be that, yes, we have segregated ourselves by ideology,” he said. “Having said that, there's something to be said for the efficiency scores. In fact, the Republicans made the argument before the last redistricting that they were underrepresented in some elections in terms of seats won, based on percentage of votes (the GOP won). Now, I believe the Democrats have made the exact same argument. If that's the case, they all seem to agree that there's a need for our number of elected officials to – if not match perfectly – to certainly be within a standard deviation or so of matching the percentage of votes throughout the entire state won by those individuals.”
Downs is not optimistic the changes to reform the redistricting process will happen next year, in a long legislative session where the biennial budget will dominate the agenda.
But a redistricting reform bill would not be making its first appearance before the General Assembly. Legislative leaders voiced support for reform in 2017 and 2018, but Rep. Milo Smith, a Columbus Republican, single-handedly killed legislation in his House Elections and Apportionment Committee. Smith did not seek re-election this year. If legislative leaders are serious about electoral reform, they can make sure a bill to establish an independent redistricting commission advances.
Former Indiana Congresswoman Jill Long Thompson, who writes about women's electoral gains at the national level on Page 14A, was the last Democrat to represent northeast Indiana in the U.S. House.
“Indiana has trended very much to the Republican Party,” said Long Thompson, who won the GOP-leaning 4th District seat in a special election after Sen. Dan Quayle became vice president and Congressman Dan Coats won his Senate seat. Long Thompson won re-election in 1990 and '92, but lost to Republican Mark Souder in 1994's Republican wave. Now a visiting professor at Indiana University, she contends that redistricting has changed the state's electoral landscape.
“Clearly, the congressional district lines as well as legislative lines have been drawn in a way that favor Republicans,” she said, noting the same tactics were used in Maryland to elect Democrats. “That is counter to good government.”
Good government should not be a partisan issue. Legislators can and should approve reform in the next session, in advance of redistricting in 2021.