Virtually every citizen believes that fairness and transparency in politics is better than favoritism and backroom deals. No sports fans would continue to support a game in which the outcomes were predetermined or routinely settled by referees instead of by play on the field.
Yet, every decade, the process of legislators drawing district boundaries around their voters is subject to gamesmanship.
Following the U.S. Census, the Minnesota Legislature must redraw congressional and state Senate and House district lines, which both houses and the governor must approve. These become our voting maps. Yet no redistricting plan from 1960 on has been adopted without going through the courts.
After 70 years of failure, you’d think a legislature would want to fix a core legislative function. But Minnesota’s redistricting process has remained dysfunctional.
Whoever draws the maps asserts the power to choose how votes will be tallied. For example, the 2011 Legislature-drawn plan removed three strongly Democratic areas from the district of the Republican legislator who oversaw the redistricting.
Imagine you’re a Minnesota legislator who has been in the minority party for a decade or more.
In the Census year of 2020, your party wins both houses and the governorship. With control of the 2021 redistricting process, do you redraw districts to punish the party that once lorded over you? Do you declare a truce and work out deals with the opposition to protect each other’s seats?
Either way, you’ll most likely fight to make sure the new map of your district differs little from the one that elected you. And you can pick your constituents before the voters pick you because of the sophisticated data-mapping tools available today.
As Minnesotans living in the metro area, our own congressional and state districts have been “safe” for one party for decades. Since we agree politically with our representatives, there’s not much incentive to get involved in the electoral process — or even let them know where we stand on an issue. For our neighbors with different views, there’s even less reason to vote, run for office, or expect their reps to listen.
The 2016 national election and its aftermath widened partisan divisions in state politics that waste lawmaker time and public resources. This state of affairs prompted us to move out of our safe zone in 2018 and devote serious time in other districts volunteering for candidates who represented change.
We made calls, wrote postcards, and knocked on 1,400 doors. Having front-step conversations with voters of all stripes, we heard their conviction, dismay, and cynicism. Though concern about issues was high, faith in candidates, government, and elections seemed at risk. Still, participating in this process rekindled our enthusiasm for democracy, muted our partisanship, and awakened us to the broad support Minnesotans have for fairness in elections.
In fact, there is a groundswell across the country to curb gerrymandering and temper the self-selection that results when legislatures draw their own district lines. Citizens in other states have initiated measures to create independent redistricting panels or citizen advisory commissions that increase transparency and involve non-legislators in the redistricting process.
In 2018, state Rep. Ginny Klevorn, DFL-Plymouth, defeated the legislator who gerrymandered her own district. Now Klevorn has introduced HF 1605, a bill calling for a redistricting commission that includes a bipartisan group of retired judges, plus citizens from a carefully screened pool of applicants chosen by legislative leaders from both parties, using a process similar to jury selection. This makeup will combine the deliberative perspective of judicial members with more diverse ages, life experiences, and geographic representation.
HF 1605 also contains detailed principles that will reduce bias by making the process open to public participation, blind to incumbency, and protected from influence by legislators outside of public meetings. These principles will ensure that new maps are drawn fresh, based on community interests, rather than partisan ones.
As a result, some districts drawn in 2021 may become more competitive or better represent their residents. But just as important, the process outlined by HF 1605 increases the fairness, transparency, and meaningful citizen engagement in deciding who represents us.
Without reform, it’s another 10 years of legislators choosing us before we even see a ballot.
Charlie Quimby, a retired business owner, and Susan Cushman, a retired physician, live in Golden Valley.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)