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Redistricting in Minnesota should minimize partisan influence

As it stands, drawing new district lines produces a partisan political battle.

Every 10 years, after the Census, the Minnesota Legislature is responsible for drawing new legislative and congressional districts in our state. While redistricting might sound like a ministerial duty, it is anything but. As it stands, drawing new lines produces a partisan political battle as legislators seek to preserve their seats and help their political party dominate the legislature. In 2010 the DFL proposal would have extended Rep. Paulson’s 3rd District into more DFL friendly suburbs to the east and the Republican proposal would have stacked the northern 7th and 8th districts horizontally rather than vertically. The consequence of a failure to agree led to expensive litigation in the courts, along with delay, in order to produce a map.

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing electoral districts in an irregular fashion for partisan gain. It results in mostly safe districts — which disenfranchises citizen votes and discourages citizen participation. It is the chief cause of gridlock in our state legislature and in Congress. At a time when democracy is under attack in our country, it is important to do all we can to encourage political competition and respect the will of the people. Legislators have little incentive to compromise when they come from safe districts; this accounts for the failure of the Minnesota legislature and Congress to get its work done in recent years. Competitive districts will increase voter turnout and attract qualified challengers.

An inherent conflict of interest

The fact is that legislators have an inherent conflict of interest in redistricting since they cannot reasonably be expected to draw boundaries that affect their re-election adversely. The legislature recognized a conflict of interest last year when it asked voters to create an independent commission to set legislative salaries. The constitutional amendment passed with a resounding 76 percent in favor. There is little doubt that voters would also be in favor a redistricting plan that minimized partisan influence. That is what has happened in other states, such as Arizona and California, when independent commissions to set boundaries were approved by referendums.

However, bills are moving through the legislature (S.F. 86, H.F. 314) that would prohibit any body other than the legislature from being involved in redistricting. In other words, it will be the same old partisan battle with the same disastrous results for democracy. Competing bills (S.F. 370, H.F. 246) that would create a citizen commission composed of retired judges to advise the legislature on a fair redistricting plan are also being heard. This proposal would favorably impact the political nature of our present system and result in a fairer outcome without a need to resort to the courts.

A building block of democracy

Redistricting is one of the building blocks of democracy. It deserves a process that recognizes its importance in our system of government. We need an outcome that encourages legislative cooperation and that does not encourage extreme positions that do not reflect the will of Minnesotans.

If our legislators hear from the public that this is one of the most important issues this session, S.F. 86 could be defeated or amended to include the process in S.F. 370. The look and effectiveness of the legislature after 2020 hangs in the balance.

George Beck chairs Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/03/2017 - 10:45 am.

    Hear! Hear!

    Gerrymandering is the active undermining of democracy.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/03/2017 - 11:58 am.

    Inherent Conflicts

    I don’t think it’s possible to trust politicians of any party to be completely fair in their redistricting decisions. The independent commission is a good idea that should have been adopted years ago (Iowa has, as far as I know, long done things that way).

    There are a few principles that should be a given in redistricting Districts should be as nearly equal in population as possible. Subject to that requirement:

    Existing district boundaries should be respected as much as possible, for continuity’s sake.

    Political subdivisions–counties, cities, townships–should not be divided between districts, if possible.

    Partisan make-up should not be a consideration when setting boundaries.

    The residence of incumbent officeholders should not be a consideration when setting boundaries.

    Neither/no party should be able to institutionalize a safe seat. If a seat is safe, it should be from the naturally occurring demographics of a district, and the voters’ preference, not due to cartography.

    PS to the author. The number of one of the competing bills is SF 370, not HF.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/03/2017 - 02:52 pm.

    Agreed, mostly…

    I can’t top Ms. Kahler for succinctness and veracity.

    Speaking only for myself, I’d support all of RB Holbrook’s suggested principles except the first one. “Continuity” in this context strikes me as perhaps somewhat easier for voters to deal with, but not an essential ingredient of reform. Toss the old boundaries and start from scratch.

    That always leads me to my perennial unanswered question: When drawing legislative district boundaries, whether the legislature is trying to be ethical or not, what’s the starting point for boundary lines? The state capitol building? Some arbitrary geographic location? The crossing of two prominent lines of latitude and longitude?

    Those tangential questions aside, I like the rest of Holbrook’s principles.

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 03/03/2017 - 04:41 pm.

    An idea

    “We need an outcome that encourages legislative cooperation and that does not encourage extreme positions that do not reflect the will of Minnesotans.” This is very true. So here is an idea: all politicians should be allowed to run in their district of choice only once; the next time they will have to run in a district randomly chosen by a computer. This will make district configuration irrelevant and will force politicians to stick to moderate platforms because the next election time they may have a totally different constituency. By the way, I am serious here, not sarcastic.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/06/2017 - 10:47 am.

      The Issue

      The problem with your idea is that it dilutes a representative’s interest in being responsive to her constituents. Why would a representative take the time to listen to constituents and address their concerns if she may or may not be running for re-election?

      There is also the question of expertise and empathy. Would the voters in farm country be comfortable with a representative who has never set foot on a farm in his life, and who has no idea of what agriculture might entail?

      “This will . . . force politicians to stick to moderate platform . . .” Why is that a good thing? Democracy is a process, not a result. “Forcing” politicians into policies guaranteed to offend no one is a sure recipe for a failed government.

  5. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 03/03/2017 - 07:06 pm.

    The main weakness of our Constituion

    MinnPost’s Eric Black has done a yeoman’s service in his articles on the Constitution. One thing I’ve taken away from is articles is that it was written to create a republic, not a democracy. In fact, it was written to diminish the effects of the popular vote which is the chief quality of a democracy. At the time it was written, the States only allowed white male property owners to vote. Perhaps it as an issue which the drafters simply wanted to avoid in the interest of having the Constitution approved at all or perhaps it was because they all agreed that only white men owning property should be allowed to vote. In any event, a major weakness of the Constitution is the failure to define the right to vote as a right or privilege of citizenship regardless of ownership of property, race, gender or creed. Our US Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution as requiring that each person is entitled to one vote so each vote is equal in weight but this has not played out consistently in our jurisprudence. If Congress is too divided to enshrine this Constitutional principle in law, then each State must do so as a matter of State law so that every person’s vote is given equal weight not diluted by partisanship through gerrymandering. Let the best candidate win but let it be done through a fair voting process which our present system is not.

  6. Submitted by Jan Arnold on 03/04/2017 - 01:32 pm.

    Redistricting

    I do not understand why, in today’s world, people and not computers determine district lines.

    The parameters are known, include “common sense” restrictions (don’t split down the middle of a house, keep towns under x populaltion in one district, etc.).

    Do not take into consideration how the area voted before, just the legal requirements for the district. Candidates are on their own to win elections.

    This should not be a “brain surgery/rocket science” thing. Computers are not hard to program and would make the decision impartial and fair.

    • Submitted by Phil Uhrich on 03/04/2017 - 09:35 pm.

      A better Idea

      Would be to consider partisanship and aim to make as many competitive districts that are specially compact as possible.

  7. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/04/2017 - 03:34 pm.

    For The Life of Me

    I don’t understand why the D’s & R’s in this state don’t agree to an impartial process. The only time I recall one party getting it’s way was in 1991 when the DFL legislature sent Gov. Carlson a plan, and Carlson biffed the veto and it became law. The GOP took over the House a couple of elections later anyway.

    Since it goes to a judge sooner or later anyway, lets just set up a commission anyway.

    The soft ware and analytics of re-redistricting have grown exponentially over the last couple of decades. It is long past time to get some retired judges, along with the sitting MN supreme court judge, to decide this every 10 years and be done with it.

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