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The Journal Gazette

Monday, January 29, 2018 1:00 am



'Baby step' to fix gerrymandering insufficient

Lawmakers are beginning to accept that Indiana voters aren't happy with politicians drawing electoral districts to protect their own seats and benefit their political parties. But some of those same lawmakers are looking to appease voters with a feeble effort to stop gerrymandering.

Don't let them.

Senate Bill 326 passed the Senate Elections Committee by a unanimous vote last week, but the measure falls far short of a serious effort to fix a broken redistricting process. It addresses only the standards that can be used in mapmaking, not the key issue of who is drawing the maps. An independent redistricting commission should be charged with the task, not the lawmakers who currently are allowed to choose their own voters.

“Is this it?” asked Senate Democratic Leader Tim Lanane of Anderson of Republican Greg Walker's bill. “Is this the only half we're going to get?”

“It may not be a perfect; ... but we may have a system that gives everyone more confidence,” Walker replied. “What I've got before you is a baby step.”

A baby step isn't enough. The maps drawn by the Republican majority after the 2010 Census spawned supermajorities in both the Indiana House and Senate. With those supermajorities, moderation and compromise are increasingly difficult to find, and sound efforts to make Indiana a better place to live and work are edged out by contentious and often-unconstitutional laws advancing a social agenda.

Julia Vaughn is policy director for Common Cause of Indiana, one of the leaders in a statewide coalition pushing for redistricting reform. She said last week that legislators are wrong if they believe Hoosiers will be satisfied with SB 326, which does little more than direct mapmakers to avoid splitting voters with common traits; to draw compact districts; and to try to maintain local-government boundaries. It also allows them to ignore those standards if they document a reason for doing so. 

“As long as self-interested legislators are conducting the redistricting process, there will be suspicion,” Vaughn said in an interview. “A process that doesn't give public access to the documents used to draw maps – that is enough to draw public suspicion.”

Referring to rulings in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Pennsylvania lawsuits, she said the “courts are poised to bring the hammer down on partisan gerrymandering.”

“As long as we have redistricting that's an inside job, the suspicion will be there and (Indiana) lawsuits in 2021 are a real possibility,” Vaughn said.

A stronger bill – Senate Bill 159 – would have established an independent redistricting commission but Walker, the elections panel chair, wouldn't give it a hearing. House Bill 1014, authored by Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, also establishes a commission, but it has been assigned to the House Elections Committee, with no hearing scheduled.

If a pending U.S. Supreme Court case involving redistricting procedures in Wisconsin results in the favorable decision gerrymandering opponents expect, the heat will be on for the Indiana General Assembly to improve its own procedures. The baby step it is preparing to take will result in costly legislation. Tell your state senator and representative to take the courageous step required to improve Indiana's electoral well-being.