The simple act of drawing a line can have a profound impact on history. In 1767, a line was drawn to settle a land dispute between the colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Little did the two land surveyors — Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon — know, the line that they drew would one day divide this nation in two. The Mason-Dixon line was used to divide North and South during the Civil War.
Lines can be drawn to divide communities or embrace them. That is the task of a panel of judges who must redraw Minnesota’s political boundaries for the state Legislature and U.S. Congress. The redistricting panel must draw lines that protect the principle of one-person, one-vote, which is fundamental to our democracy.
However, there are many ways that the lines can be drawn to protect that fundamental principle. Some of those ways are, unfortunately, devious and undemocratic. For decades, we have heard stories of politicians drawing districts that seek to protect their jobs from the wrath of voters. While this type of gerrymandering is nothing new, it has become much more sophisticated in the last 20 years, increasing the probability of success and inviting yet more invidious line-drawing.
During the 2000 redistricting process in California, Republicans and Democrats worked together. These days, most people would be applauding such an effort; however, the outcome of that effort protected incumbent members of Congress and state legislators and, ultimately, only served to further entrench political divisions between the parties and preserve the political status quo. In fact, only three of the 53 recent congressional races have been considered competitive in California. When this happens, voters rightly feel that their vote does not matter because the politicians have drawn the districts around politicians, not people.
Process is better than the alternative
Minnesota has largely avoided these problems because the court has been forced to intervene four of the last five times that the maps were redrawn. While this process is not ideal, it is better than the alternative of politicians choosing their voters and having the redistricting process fall victim to gerrymandering.
This process also allows for more citizen input than is typically considered if the Legislature is redrawing the lines. The court needs Minnesotans’ help in identifying and defining the real communities that exist all over the state. Without that information, the court may be more likely to divide communities in a way that does not make sense to those living there. That is why it is so critical that more Minnesotans stand up to have their voice heard in this process.
Having districts that represent real communities is essential to having effective representation because it is then easier for elected officials to identify and advance the interests of their districts.
Clear common interests
For example, it would never make sense for a legislator to represent both rural and suburban areas, because these areas do not have a clear common interest. Not only would the legislator have a hard time identifying a cohesive legislative agenda that benefitted the community, voter cynicism would increase as voters might feel that they had been forced into an artificial community.
Take a few minutes right now to educate the redistricting panel about your community. You can find a set of questions here that will help you share this valuable information with the panel by Friday, Oct. 21.
In the end, legislators are a reflection of their districts; if the districts are not drawn in a way that represents real communities, then the legislator is going to fail in representing the district well.
Submitting your comments to the panel is just one step you can take to help fix our broken political system. At a time when our politics seem so polarized, it is time for citizens to become more engaged in how our government operates.
Mike Dean is the executive director of Common Cause Minnesota.