Lawmakers, citizens groups gird for redistricting session

Former state Sen. Beverly Gard says she knows what the partisan consequences of redistricting look like.

The Greenfield Republican said she saw them in 2011 as legislative leaders from her own party carved out portions of her overwhelmingly Republican district to make neighboring districts more Republican-friendly.

“They needed Republican votes in other places,” Gard said.

She said the new map also diluted a Democratic area in Marion County’s Warren Township by doglegging it into her district.

Asked if she considered the changes gerrymandering, or drawing voter maps for political gain, she responded: “Oh, there’s no question about it. Whichever party is in power is going to protect their own people.”

More of the same is expected this year as the Republican-dominated Indiana General Assembly embarks on the once-a-decade, highly partisan process of redistricting, though public scrutiny is expected to be much greater than in previous years.

In years past, the Legislature has been able to shroud the redistricting process with budget debates and other pending issues. But due to a pandemic-related delay in the census data needed to redraw the maps this year, lawmakers are expected to return to the Statehouse in September to deal exclusively with redistricting.

Several voter groups are promising to closely monitor the process, even though most of the wheeling and dealing could still occur behind closed doors amid sporadic public hearings.

Redistricting is required every 10 years as part of the constitutionally mandated national census to properly apportion congressional districts among the states, based on population. Political parties have been accusing each other since 1812 of gerrymandering in that process.

But what constitutes gerrymandering is largely in the eye of the beholder, and the nation’s courts have been reluctant to intervene in such legislative disputes.

“Traditionally, the courts have not challenged partisan gerrymandering,” said Laura Merrifield Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Indianapolis. “So, usually, the judicial system would say, ‘Sure, you can draw the lines to advance your party.’”

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1986 regarding Indiana’s 1981 redistricting plan actually determined that partisan gerrymandering was unconstitutional, at least in theory, but only when it was so severe as to “consistently degrade” a political group’s influence.

The court upheld Indiana’s 1981 maps, determining they did not violate that threshold.

But that hasn’t stopped Indiana Democrats and Republicans from accusing each other of gerrymandering ever since.

Tit for tat

When Scott Reske’s house was cut out of the legislative district he had represented for a decade, he said, he knew he didn’t stand a chance of holding onto his seat in the Indiana House.

Reske, a Democrat, represented House District 37, a dense district in Hamilton and Madison counties. During redistricting in the 2011 legislative session, he said, he was drawn out of his district and into Republican Rep. Bob Cherry’s district in Hancock County.

Until then, Reske’s district had been competitive, almost split 50/50 between Republican and Democrat voters. Reske continued to win elections even as the GOP gained more power at the Statehouse.

“I kept winning, and the Republicans didn’t like that,” Reske said. “My district was gerrymandered to pull me out of it.”

Cherry, who has been a state lawmaker since 1998, said it was the area’s population growth, not gerrymandering, that resulted in his district’s being redrawn. Hamilton County alone grew 50% from 2000 to 2010, Cherry noted, and legislative districts need to be drawn to represent a consistent number of people.

“The demographic changes over time. More people moving in,” he said.

When Democrats were in charge of drawing the House maps in 1991, they also were accused of gerrymandering for drawing Republican John Ruckelshaus out of his Indianapolis district.

It was a topic Ruckelshaus addressed many times through unsuccessful redistricting-reform legislation he drafted when he was later elected to the Indiana Senate.

The party in power also can draw its own members out of their districts, Wilson noted.

These could be lawmakers who are too much of a political liability, are generally unpopular or seen as not toeing the party line, she said.

“Whatever it might be, it’s quite possible the leadership will draw a map that will not favor them,” Wilson said. “In fact, they may lose some of their party voters and are at risk of benefiting the other party.”

Rep. John Jacob, R-Indianapolis, who touts his ultraconservative beliefs and going against the traditional Republican Party at the Statehouse, has said publicly that he thinks he is in the line of fire to be ousted through redistricting.

Jacob declined an interview with the Indianapolis Business Journal but said at a town hall meeting in his district in June that he would be “surprised” if GOP leadership did not try to get him out of office that way, because most lawmakers generally do not like him.

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, did not respond to questions about Jacob’s claims. He and Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, have said little in recent weeks about the upcoming redistricting, other than to schedule public hearings around the state in early August.

But in the years since the last Republican-controlled redistricting in 2011, GOP leaders have often said their party dominates the Legislature because Indiana is largely a Republican state, not because of the maps. After all, the party currently holds every statewide elected office — campaigns not dependent on districts.

Democrats, however, are quick to note that their numbers in the Legislature have dwindled considerably over the past 10 years under the GOP-drawn maps. In the House, Republicans held a 60-40 advantage in 2010 that has grown to a supermajority of 71-29. In the Senate, the GOP has built on its supermajority, going from a 37-13 advantage to a 39-11 margin.

In Congress, Indiana’s delegation consisted of five Democrats and four Republicans going into 2010. Republicans gained two seats that year and picked up one more with the new maps in 2012, establishing a 7-2 advantage that holds today.

Impact of redistricting

If districts are drawn to strongly favor one party, that can lead to more extreme candidates winning elections, thus affecting policy coming out of the Statehouse, Wilson said.

First, one-party power over a particular district puts an “overwhelming” emphasis on primary elections, which bring lower voter turnout, she said. That can attract more voters on the extreme side of either party, weeding out moderate candidates.

“The primary for the party in power is essentially an insider,” Wilson said. “The people that show up to vote in primaries tend to be the more ideologically focused, the more extreme partisans.”

And typically, who wins the primary will win the general elections in most districts. Many current legislators win elections with almost 70% or more of the vote.

“Political science literature tells us just how influential gerrymandering is in polarization,” Wilson said. “It promotes more ideologically extreme candidates, relative to those who might be more moderate.”

Senate Democratic Leader Greg Taylor represents an Indianapolis district that is 80% Democratic, and he’s run opposed only twice in his four terms, he said. Competition does not exist in many districts, he added.

“That’s not fair to my constituents,” Taylor said.

“I’m not sure the supermajority reflects the entire state,” Gard said. “You don’t have to work with the other side. You can just do what your other members want to do.”

Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, said policies such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act from 2015 happened because of the lack of a balance between both parties in the Statehouse. Public outcry over the act immediately resulted in a change that prevented the law from overriding local ordinances that protected LGBTQ Hoosiers from discrimination.

Calls for transparency

While Indiana law currently charges lawmakers with the job of redistricting, some have pushed for an independent redistricting commission to take on the task to promote more transparency.

Common Cause Indiana has helped lead the charge for an independent commission but hasn’t had any success persuading key legislative leaders. Instead, it is calling for more transparency this year and holding meetings across the state to encourage residents to draw their own maps. 

The group’s Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission — consisting of three Republicans, three Democrats and three nonpartisan members — have gathered and compiled community testimony from all nine congressional districts on redistricting to present to the General Assembly.

The nonpartisan Women4Change Indiana also is calling for more transparency.

It recently commissioned a study by Christopher Warshaw, a political science professor at George Washington University, that found Indiana’s congressional and state maps are more biased in favor of Republicans than most other maps drafted in the past 50 years both in the state and across the country.

Some Democratic lawmakers, such as Ford and Taylor, and a few Republican lawmakers have tried and failed over the years to pass legislation to establish more transparency.

Some bills, such as one that established some standards for drawing the maps, or one that would have created a system for members of the public to submit their own maps for consideration, all failed in the Legislature in the last couple of years.

Cherry supported independent redistricting when House Republicans were in the minority in the early 2000s. He said he would be open to legislation today but also said independent redistricting is not possible.

“When you’re in the minority, you wish you had a bite of the apple,” Cherry said. “I don’t know a better way to do it. I’d like to say there are nonpartisans, but everybody has an opinion.”

This year, the data needed for the delayed redistricting process will be available from the U.S. Census Bureau on Aug. 16, and lawmakers are expected to return in mid-to-late September to draw the new maps.

Public hearings involving the House and Senate elections committees will be held in eight cities around the state on Aug. 6-7 and at the Statehouse in Indianapolis on Aug. 11. The Aug. 6 hearings are planned in Anderson, Columbus, Lafayette and Valparaiso, with the Aug. 7 hearings in Fort Wayne, Elkhart, Evansville and Sellersburg.

Once the formal legislative process begins in September, Taylor said, he hopes not to hear the same old, tired excuse of how both parties have been “guilty of gerrymandering.”

“Just because we’ve done things in the past doesn’t mean we have to keep doing it,” he said. “Saying, ‘Because you did it, I’m going to do it,’ is no longer a valid excuse.”•

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