Indiana redistricting critics keeping up push for changes

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Critics of how Indiana politicians dice up the state for congressional and legislative districts know they are running out of time for changing that process with the once-a-decade U.S. census less than three months away.

Those advocating for a revamp of Indiana’s redistricting procedures have been frustrated for several years in attempts to find support among Republicans whose full-supermajority command of the Indiana Legislature came about after they gained total control over redrawing those maps following the 2010 census.

Although about one-quarter of the states use independent commissions or nonpartisan staff in redistricting procedures, Indiana has kept the process under which legislators can draw districts to the advantage of their political party — a practice known as gerrymandering that can help lock in a party’s political power for the next decade to come.

Critics maintain Republicans have gained outsized power in the Legislature — where they now hold a 40-10 Senate majority and a 67-33 House command — while winning the governor’s office with 51% of the 2016 vote and 49.5% in 2012.

Susan Davis, a retired high school English teacher from Bloomington, joined other activists at the Statehouse this past week as this year’s legislative session began, arguing Republicans gerrymandered the state “in an extreme way” and that Indiana is more evenly divided than it appears by looking at those holding office.

“No matter whether you are a Democrat or a Republican or somewhere in between, it’s not working very well,” she said. “It’s depressing voting and it’s curtailing debate, and that’s never a good thing.”

About a dozen other legislators stepped before those activists and signed a pledge from Common Cause Indiana supporting politically impartial redistricting standards. Most were Democrats, but Republican Sen. John Ruckelshaus of Indianapolis joined them and announced a bill he’s sponsoring to create a state website where the public can draw suggested maps and submit comments before the Legislature votes on new districts in 2021.

Ruckelshaus said he was a “casualty” of a Democratic-led redistricting in 1991 that drew him out of a state House seat after a single term. He has supported creating an independent commission to draw Indiana’s congressional and legislative districts for approval by the General Assembly, but those proposals have failed to advance over the past decade even though powerful GOP House Speaker Brian Bosma has been a previous bill sponsor.

“Both sides are guilty, if you will,” Ruckelshaus said. “But I think the more public pressure we can put the better.”

The big majorities Republicans hold in the Legislature allow them to take action even without any Democrats present, which makes moot any boycotts by Democrats, such as those in 2011 and 2012 in their failed efforts to block passage of a state “right-to-work” law.

Republicans have also locked in a 7-2 majority of Indiana’s congressional seats since the 2012 election with the GOP-drawn maps. Republican candidates received 55% of the statewide congressional vote in the 2018 election, but none of the district races were close.

The state Senate last year endorsed a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Greg Walker of Columbus that included a prohibition on considering the residency of incumbent office holders when new districts were drawn, but the House never took up the proposal. 

Walker, who is chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, said he was leaving it to the House this year to advance any proposed redistricting changes, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court declared in June that federal judges have no role in settling disputes over partisan gerrymandering.

“That further emboldens the General Assembly to keep the status quo and let the voters cast their votes as they will,” Walker said. “I understand that can be trick bag if you say you don’t get to vote fairly because I’m not in a fair district. But that’s the lay of the land today, that’s the political environment today.”

Republican House Elections Committee Chairman Tim Wesco of Osceola defended the current political maps as “cleaner and better” than those drawn by Democrats when they had the upper hand in the 2001 redistricting. He said the state constitution would still require maps drawn by an independent commission to gain the approval of legislators.

“The constitution gives that authority to the legislative body,” he said. “Essentially, the constitution would have to change for that authority to shift from elected officials to appointed or nonelected officials.”

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