Indiana lawmakers are set to take on a final hearing at the Statehouse on Wednesday following a weekend of mostly partisan input from hundreds who attended redistricting listening tours across the state.
Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute — who is chair of the Senate Elections Committee, playing a leading role in redrawing the congressional and legislative maps — said after the stop in Columbus on Friday that he hopes the Statehouse meeting will feature less “grandstanding” from people who speak.
Overall, he thought the tour across the state went well with large attendance, but he said he wants to hear specific concerns beyond people asking generally for lawmakers to draw the lines fairly.
“I hope there’s a little bit more about what people would like to hear, you know, and what we would like to see in this race,” Ford said. “I think that’s important to hear, you know, that compactness is important. You know, competitiveness is important.”
Most of the people who spoke at the eight hearings across the state were Democrats, saying they were frustrated with the redistricting process. Many asked the panel of lawmakers from the House and Senate elections committees to not gerrymander the district maps for political gain, said they felt their votes do not count with the way the lines are drawn, and asked for more transparency.
The majority party is tasked with redrawing the legislative and congressional district lines every 10 years. Political watchdogs say it is a highly partisan process done mostly behind closed doors.
The panel of lawmakers at the hearings did not answer any questions and sat in silence when asked for a response to questions. Ford said the “no questions” rule was established so lawmakers could just listen to what people wanted.
Democrat lawmakers said they were dissatisfied with the outcome of the listening tour over the weekend. Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, who was among lawmakers at the tour stop in Columbus, called the hearings a “public relations operation trying to look transparent.”
“Members of the public want a dialogue and they want to have forthright answers about what criteria are going to be used to draw these maps,” Pierce said.
Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, the ranking minority member on the Senate Elections Committee, echoed Pierce.
“Hoosiers are not buying this dog-and-pony show,” J.D. Ford said.
Pierce also publicly called out the House Republicans at the meeting for not releasing the contract for the hire of Jason Torchinsky, a senior adviser and general counsel to the National Republican Redistricting Trust, to serve as legal counsel for the Indiana’s redistricting process.
IBJ obtained the letter of engagement signed by House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, in April, hiring Torchinsky to serve as an attorney offering legal advice during and after the redistricting process, should the maps face any lawsuits. He was not asked to help with drawing the maps.
House Republicans will not hire any outside consultants to draw maps or provide data, said Erin Wittern, spokesperson for the House Republican caucus.
Torchinsky has been paid $2,761.87 to date, and that comes out of the $54,000 budget each caucus was given for expenses related to redistricting, he said. Wittern added that the House Republicans were not required to release the engagement letter but did so for the sake of transparency.
Jon Ford said he expects the contract to eventually be released.
Going into the final hearing in the House Chamber at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Democrats expect a replay of the weekend, Pierce said.
“More of the same. A lot of frustrated people wanting to really understand, wanting to believe that it’s going to be a different process this time and really just being met with a wall silence,” Pierce said.
The Indianapolis hearing will be chaired by Jon Ford and Rep. Tim Wesco, R-Osceola, and lawmakers from both the House and Senate elections committees will make up the panel.
Jon Ford said he plans to take what the public says into account when going in to draw the maps after data from the U.S. Census Bureau is available Aug. 12. He does not expect to hold a second round of hearings once the maps are draw, despite several people at the hearings asking for another tour.
Opportunities for public comment will be allotted when the proposed maps go through House and Senate committee in mid-to-late September, when the Legislature is set to return to vote on the new maps.
When asked about transparency, Jon Ford said the maps are drawn behind closed doors because that is how all legislation is drafted. It is first written, then presented to the public.
“It’s like anything. Any other type of legislation we do we work on it, we work with [the Legislative Services Agency] to draft the bills and draft the redrafted districts, and then we go through the committee process,” Jon Ford said.
Once census data is available and early proposed maps are drawn, the public will have the chance to draw their own district maps online to send to lawmakers as they draw the maps, said Molly Fishell, spokesperson for the Senate Republicans.
The public map-drawing program will be operated by Citygate GIS, which also provides the software that lawmakers will use to draw the maps. The program will go live sometime in early September on the iga.in.gov/redistricting website, Fishell said.
The final redistricting hearing at the Statehouse is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. Wednesday.