News and Tribune

Opinions

March 31, 2010

NEAL: It’s never ‘too late’ for redistricting reform

>>SOUTHERN INDIANA — The 2010 legislature came and went without reforming the redistricting process, but lawmakers aren’t off the hook. If electoral maps to be drawn in 2011 are to have any credibility with voters, legislators will have to follow a more transparent and honest process than has been used before.

As required every 10 years after the census, the next General Assembly will draw state legislative and congressional districts. Voters should pin candidates down on this issue before the fall elections. Anyone who refuses to make a “no gerrymandering” promise doesn’t deserve to be elected.          

Gerrymandering has been around forever, but the computer age has aggravated its anti-democratic traits. All it takes is good software, political data and the voting histories of citizens, and legislative districts can be designed that will favor one party at the expense of the other indefinitely.

“When the legislature comes back and actually does design maps, the voters and taxpayers are going to have something to compare it to."

— TODD ROKITA

The term dates back to the early 1800s when Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed off on a legislative district that resembled a salamander. Within no time, the word gerrymander had become a verb, meaning, “to shape a district to gain political advantage.”  In gerrymandered districts, voters don’t pick their political leaders; politicians pick their voters.

A modern example is Indiana congressional district 4, which stretches from north of Lafayette to south of Bedford with twists and turns that extend from Fountain County on the west to Johnson County on the East. The 5th district, which goes from Huntington to Shelbyville, is similar.

A few states like Arizona, in efforts to avoid blatant gerrymandering, have turned over the job of redistricting to independent commissions comprised of people appointed by the political parties or representing non-partisan organizations.  

A simpler remedy is to leave the task to the legislative branch but set strict criteria that will prevent gerrymandering in the first place.

Senate Bill 80, which passed the Senate but died in the House, would have required new legislative maps to be as compact as possible, respecting county and township lines, preserving traditional neighborhoods and communities of interest and protecting minority voting rights. It would also have prohibited the use of political data, such as incumbents’ addresses, in drawing maps.

Secretary of State Todd Rokita, who has advocated this approach, has designed maps using neutral criteria and proven that compact districts that would pass constitutional challenges can easily be made. Although naysayers claim it’s too late to enact legislation to govern the 2011 redistricting process, there is absolutely no reason why the next session could not and should not adopt the standards set in SB 80.

Rokita is running as a Republican for U.S. House District 4 but intends to follow the issue closely even though he will no longer be in charge of Indiana’s elections. “When the legislature comes back and actually does design maps, the voters and taxpayers are going to have something to compare it to,” he notes. He is encouraging organizations and citizens’ advocates to do the same thing he did: design compact maps that follow county and township boundaries, using the new census numbers, and compare them to what the legislature comes up with.

Rokita is encouraged by statements from Gov. Mitch Daniels that he would veto any reapportionment bill that did not follow objective guidelines. Surely lawmakers would not be so brazen as to try and override that.

Voters need to get as excited about this as they did over property taxes, which led to a grass-roots revolt that forced the legislature to submit to the voters a referendum on the matter of tax caps.

If a district is drawn 70 percent favoring one party, the general election is irrelevant. Opposition candidate aren’t taken seriously, can’t raise money or get their views aired, and voters don’t have a real choice.           

If voters are given fair, open and competitive elections, many of the other problems of modern politics – excessive partisanship, too many incumbents, and too much pork — will disappear. There is no more important issue for the next legislature.

Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Opinions
READERS' COMMENTS
Twitter Updates
Follow us on twitter