Coalition enlists public for ‘shadow redistricting’

A coalition of activist groups has announced a new push against what it calls partisan gerrymandering by Indiana’s Republican-dominated Legislature.

The organization All IN for Democracy is creating an Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission to shadow the Indiana General Assembly as it redraws the congressional and legislative maps next year using 2020 census data. At the end of its process, the commission will submit a report to the Statehouse, where coalition leaders hope legislators will use it as a guide for their redistricting process.

“Our coalition will create and implement the kind of redistricting process that serves the public interest, not partisan political interest,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana.

Coalition leaders said they would form a nine-member citizens commission comprised of a diverse and representative group of Hoosiers. Anyone interested in serving on the commission can get more information by visiting www.allinfordemocracy.org.

Beginning in mid-January, the commission will hold virtual town hall meetings for each of the congressional districts, seeking public input on the criteria Hoosiers think should drive the redistricting process, according to Vaughn.

Also, the coalition is building a website that will allow everyone to try their hand at drawing new congressional and legislative districts for Indiana. The maps that best meet the criteria developed by the commission will win cash prizes and be submitted to the General Assembly.

Those advocating for a revamp of Indiana’s redistricting procedures have failed over several years to find support among Republicans, whose supermajority command of the Indiana Legislature came about after they gained total control over redrawing those maps 10 years ago.

The coalition of some 25 groups, including Common Cause Indiana, the NAACP and the League of Women Voters, said they hope public pressure will force lawmakers not to draw new voting districts behind closed doors.

“The General Assembly won’t do it – we understand the motivations why they won’t do it,” Vaughn said. “So we’re creating this parallel, this shadow process that will demonstrate to Hoosiers and the Legislature alike that there is a way to do this in the public interest, out in the open so that everybody can see.”

Indiana has not followed other states in creating independent commissions or other steps aimed at combating partisan gerrymandering, which occurs when politicians draw voting districts to give themselves or their political parties an advantage in future elections. Critics maintain that has helped Indiana Republicans gain outsized power in the Legislature, where they now hold a 39-11 Senate majority and a 71-29 House command. Republicans have also locked in a 7-2 majority of Indiana’s congressional seats since the 2012 election with GOP-drawn maps.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray have both said the Legislature will hold public hearings around the state ahead of redistricting decisions but have shown no signs of backing changes in the map-drawing process. Huston, of Fishers, said lawmakers have “a very open process to the public.”

“The only thing I will note about gerrymandering is that it is in the eyes of the beholder,” Huston said. “I’m hopeful when we’re done, people can say those maps make sense.”

A member of the All IN for Democracy coalition said gerrymandering has allowed the Legislature to take steps such as approving an electric utility-backed bill to eliminate much of the financial incentive available to Indiana residents and businesses who install solar panels.

“When one party can do anything it wants without input from the other, the special interests can zero in on that party in charge and get almost anything they want on a routine basis,” said Bryce Gustafson, program organizer for the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana.

Barbara Bolling-Williams, president of the Indiana State Conference of the NAACP, served on the citizens commission that was formed 10 years ago. At that time, she said, the public was not as aware of redistricting and gerrymandering.

With the intervening decade, Bolling-Williams believes Hoosiers now have the benefit of hindsight in seeing what has happened as a result of the redistricting done by the Legislature. The November election, she said, was a civics lesson on how an open, transparent and diverse map-drawing process in Indiana is “desperately needed.”

Vaughn said the commission did have a limited influence in 2011. In particular, the Indiana House of Representatives followed the commission’s top recommendation of drawing incumbent-blind districts.

“I think our impact this time will be far greater,” she said, “simply because our voice is so much louder because we’ve got more organizations behind us.”•

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