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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, May 30, 2019 1:00 am


Pressure builds

Redistricting efforts get push from courts

What lawmakers have failed to do over multiple sessions of the Indiana General Assembly almost certainly will be done on court orders. Since the legislature adjourned last month with no progress on redistricting reform, judges have ordered two of our neighboring states to redraw gerrymandered electoral districts.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday placed a hold on orders by three-judge panels in Ohio and Michigan requiring Republican lawmakers in those states to redraw congressional districts this summer. The high court's decision was not a surprise because it is expected to rule next month on partisan gerrymandering cases from Maryland and North Carolina. In each of the redistricting cases, lawmakers are accused of violating the Constitution by drawing electoral maps to partisan advantage. Racial gerrymandering is routinely scrutinized by the Supreme Court, but the court has never ruled voters' rights have been violated by partisan politics.

Conservatives on the Supreme Court appear to be reluctant to authorize judges to determine whether politics guided redistricting decisions, but lower courts have increasingly ordered newly drawn districts on those grounds. In Ohio, judges issued a 301-page opinion stating GOP lawmakers there “manipulated district lines in an attempt to control electoral outcomes.” In Michigan, the court's ruling seemed to be a direct message to the Supreme Court: “Judges – and justices – must act in accordance with their obligation to vindicate the constitutional rights of those harmed by partisan gerrymandering,” wrote Judge Eric L. Clay of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the6th Circuit.

The North Carolina case pending before the Supreme Court found Republican lawmakers drew maps to their advantage; the Maryland case found Democratic legislators redrew district lines to defeat a longtime Republican congressman.

Maps in Ohio and Michigan have resulted in electoral outcomes similar to Indiana, where Republicans easily won seven of nine congressional seats as challenger Mike Braun defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly by just a 51-45 margin (Libertarian Lucy Brenton won 4.4% of votes). In a statewide vote, one party can't pack the other party's voters in two districts.

In Ohio, the GOP has a lock on 12 of 16 congressional seats in spite of an electorate divided almost evenly between the parties. In Michigan, Republicans held nine of 14 seats until the Democratic wave in 2018 flipped two congressional seats and the offices of governor and secretary of state.

Indiana lawmakers had another opportunity to establish an independent redistricting commission in the recently ended legislative session, but again took a pass. Six bills addressing redistricting reform were filed; one narrowly passed the Indiana Senate but was never called for a hearing in the House. 

That leaves the state susceptible to the same legal challenges plaguing our neighboring states and, more important, leaves Indiana voters with a process allowing politicians to choose their own voters. In the case of the General Assembly, gerrymandering gives the supermajority total control of the legislative process. Voters grow apathetic as they come to realize they have no voice.

The Supreme Court's ruling in the North Carolina and Maryland cases could finally push Indiana lawmakers to act in voters' interest, and its newest member, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, could hold the decisive vote. During arguments in March, the Maryland native said he would not dispute the fact that “extreme partisan gerrymandering is a real problem for our democracy.” 

“Have we really reached the moment, even though it would be a big lift for this court to get involved, where the other actors can't do it?” Kavanaugh  asked.

In Indiana, that seems to be the case. Lawmakers here ignore growing calls for independent redistricting at the risk of having to redraw electoral boundaries on the order of the courts.