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Together, let’s address 70 years of electoral map dysfunction

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Charlie Quimby
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.

photo of article author
Susan Cushman
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.


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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/08/2019 - 09:03 am.

    I agree with the sentiment, but what a poorly written article.

    Minnesota actually has had it pretty good. 4 of 8 congressional seats flipped and there was a huge swing in the state house. Compare that to Wisconsin, where the Democrats got a majority of the vote for house candidates, swept the statewide offices, but only won 36 out of 99 seats.

    • Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 03/08/2019 - 09:48 am.

      Pat, the focus here is on a poor process, not a poor or acceptable or temporarily competitive outcome in Congressional elections.

      Representation at the local level matters, as your Wisconsin example suggests.

      Without all those decades of the courts untangling the work of the legislatures, would we be any better?

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/08/2019 - 04:26 pm.

        Oh, I get it. I take issue with the idea that metro districts have one-party representation because of gerrymandering. That’s simply false. Gerrymandering is going to affect swing districts, but urban and then exurban/rural districts are going to be dominated by one party no matter how you draw the lines.

        I also take issue with the idea that one-party dominance of a district is a reason to not even bother getting involved. All in all, just a poor article.

        I also would concur with Mr. Phelan – I’ve grown tired of Democrats taking the high road. Fix it everywhere or don’t bother.

        • Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 03/08/2019 - 09:19 pm.

          Pat, you are free to take issue. But we never said “metro” districts have one party representation because of gerrymandering. That is clearly not the case. Nor will it be the case in rural areas.

          The Klevorn district is a second-ring suburb. If you compare the pre-2010 district with the post-2010 alignment, three strong DFL areas were pared from the district and a 10-points weaker DFL area was added. That technically is not gerrymandering, since the courts drew the lines for the state, but they had to work from maps drawn by the GOP and led by the House incumbent for that district.

          Control of the legislature will eventually result from gaining control in the in-between districts, as it did in 2018. That’s where redrawing the maps has the greatest potential to aid one party or another. But a greater issue is the dysfunction in the legislature that occurs when majorities manipulate the boundaries and fail to get maps approved.

          You take exception to our perception that being in a strong majority can depress political involvement. We can disagree on that, but perhaps you could share your own experience working with campaigns instead of questioning ours.

          Since your views are so strong, perhaps you should submit your own coherent, researched and well-written column.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/08/2019 - 01:50 pm.

    I am very hopeful of a blue takeover of the state capitol in 2020. And if that happens the DFL should be just as aggressive as GOP legislatures were in 2011.

    If that happens in several blue states in 2021, SCOUTS will be far more likely to strike down these shenanigans. If Dems unilaterally disarm SCOTUS will continue to allow it.

    Enough bringing a nail clippers to a gun fight. McConnell has established the new normal.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/08/2019 - 03:22 pm.

      I’m not just interested in ending this non-sense in the blue states, but in all states.

      That won’t happen until the knife cuts both ways.

  3. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/09/2019 - 12:01 am.

    If all of the voting districts need to have the same number of people in them and if mostly conservatives are assigned to one area and mostly liberals are assigned to another area, don’t both areas end up being represented by a like-minded legislator?

    • Submitted by Paul John Martin on 03/09/2019 - 10:05 am.

      Well, first, districts should be drawn to represent natural communities. Anything looking like Goofy kicking Mickey Mouse (that infamous contorted district in suburban Philadelphia) should be prevented.
      Second, if more districts are competitive, more Representatives will be compelled to be less partisan in what they do.

      • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 03/10/2019 - 12:14 am.

        It would be nice if districts were just simple squares but I believe that population affects that idea greatly. After this past election season it seems like there are many competitive districts both in State and National elections, yet I fail to see less partisanship.

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