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Charter Commission voices concerns over idea to fast-track redistricting in Minneapolis

Without an expedited timeline for redistricting or a change in state law, Minneapolis voters will elect council members from the city’s current ward map for two-year terms in 2021. Then, in 2023, the city will have to hold another election for council seats. 

The city’s Charter Commission is considering a new schedule for redesigning the political boundaries to reflect demographic changes coming out of the 2020 Census.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

While the Minneapolis City Council wants speed, members of the city’s Charter Commission worry that an accelerated timeline for the redrawing of council wards in coming years could leave residents out of the redistricting process, as well as cause logistical headaches.

The city’s Charter Commission is considering a new schedule for redesigning the political boundaries to reflect demographic changes coming out of the 2020 Census. 

Under the city’s current plan, the commission will finalize new council wards, as well as districts for the parks and school boards, in March 2022. But an updated schedule would complete the redistricting almost one year earlier by the end of June 2021 — in time for that fall’s city elections, the desired scenario for council members.

On Wednesday, commissioners held a hearing on the issue, and some voiced concerns over the proposal’s narrow window for public engagement. Others said they worry the quickened pace is not feasible, considering the growth of wards and how long it’ll take to map out the demographic changes.

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Council members prefer the quicker deadline because it would sidestep a provision in a state law governing the timing of council elections and maintain the city’s current political calendar. Dubbed the Kahn Rule after its author, former DFL state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, the provision aims to honor population changes in local representation by requiring Minneapolis to hold elections soon after census-driven redistricting, even if that disrupts the city’s regular schedule of electing council members every four years.

“There is a dilution of the population too many people are crammed into some wards, too few in others. There’s not a fair equalization of representation so that you have one person, one vote,” City Clerk Casey Carl said to commissioners. “Because of that, we are required to conduct a general election in a year ending in a ‘2’ or ‘3,’ or to complete all of our redistricting in the year ending in ‘1’ so that we can conduct a general election and make those wards effective.”

Without an expedited timeline for redistricting or a change to state law, Minneapolis voters will elect 13 council members from the city’s current ward map for two-year terms in 2021, while simultaneously picking a mayor for a four-year term. Then, in 2023, the city will hold another election for council seats either for a two or four-year term — representing new wards based on 2020 census-driven redistricting. 

One result of that scenario would be a change to a key aspect of Minneapolis municipal politics: that all city offices are on the ballot in the same election cycle, including the mayor, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation

Council President Lisa Bender believes that scenario could have several negative impacts, including lower turnout in council-only election years, higher elections expenses and tenser political dynamics. 

Staggered terms would allow City Council members to run in mayoral elections without giving up their council seats. “If you talk to department heads or city staff about that, they turn white as a ghost and say, ‘Oh my God, that sounds terrible,’ because it already feels like a pretty political environment around here, and that would just create more political tension probably,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “I would expect, like, looking forward into the future that we would see significantly more council members running against the sitting mayor if we had staggered terms.”

If the commission establishes the new wards before the 2021 springtime deadline for filing for city offices, council elections could remain at four-year terms, and still be coupled with mayoral races.

Seeking help from the Legislature

Issues with Minneapolis redistricting system surfaced more than two decades ago, when voters elected council members in fall 1997 and they assumed office in January 1998. Less than three years into the new terms, the council members’ wards had changed — in some cases significantly — because of redistricting after the 2000 census count. That meant a portion of voters in the new wards waited until 2005 to elect council members who represented them.

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Aiming to give voters citywide fair representation, Kahn eventually introduced legislation that requires Minneapolis to hold elections soon after the city’s Charter Commission redistricts wards using the latest census data. The 2010 census did not test the Kahn Rule because the city had already planned to hold council elections in 2013.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Andrea Rubenstein said the Kahn Rule was a result of lawsuits on behalf of voters against the city. “People cared a lot about being heard and having input,” she said. “I am also very concerned if we shorten the time that we have to do the maps and to hear from people it’s just not enough time, and we’re going to be back in the mess that we were in 20 years ago.”

City Clerk Casey Carl
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
City Clerk Casey Carl: “There is a dilution of the population — too many people are crammed into some wards, too few in others. There’s not a fair equalization of representation so that you have one person, one vote.”
Other commissioners voiced similar worries over public engagement. Peter Ginder said he is also worried about minimal turnout in the city elections that would only have council members on the ballot. “I’m concerned about the impact of what that means to the community,” he said.

Commissioner Jana Metge said the schedule for public hearings is worrisome, too, since one falls near the Memorial Day holiday and residents are often busy that time of year. “That’s alarming.”

Through the city’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, Bender on Wednesday said the council is preparing a proposal that would ask the state Legislature to give the city more options to meet the requirement of using new wards in an election no later than 2023. 

The proposal could ask the Legislature to overturn the state provision completely, allowing Minneapolis to return to its current election cycle; it could request that council members run for two-year terms in both 2021 and 2023 so that their elections align with the mayor in 2025; or it could ask for a bill that would direct both council and mayoral candidates to run for two-year terms in 2021 and both run again for two-year terms in 2023, before returning to four-year terms in 2025 and 2029 elections. The latter option would require Mayor Jacob Frey to run a re-election campaign that current law does not require, provided he runs and wins in 2021.

Much depends on 2020 election

Results of the 2020 census are due by April 1, 2021, or within one year of the physical count. Using that data, the 15-member Charter Commission will decide how to redraw political boundaries for not only the Minneapolis City Council but also the city’s school board and Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board districts. 

Before any of that can happen, however, the state Legislature must redistrict the state. Or at least try. It’s been more than four decades since legislators have agreed on new districts throwing the map-making into the courts and delaying the whole process. 

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When then-Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a legislatively adopted plan after the 2010 census, for example, the state Supreme Court appointed a five-judge special panel to redraw the lines, which were finalized on Feb. 21, 2012.

Charter Commissioner Andrew Kozak, a veteran of redistricting debates in Minneapolis, said there’s a chance of less political fighting in 2020, if the DFL manages to gain majorities in both the state House and Senate. 

But even that might not mean a smooth process. “Because even if the DFL controls the whole state government, I’m not sure they’re going to be able to agree in a timely way to get it done,” he said. “When it’s reapportionment, it’s the ultimate political process for these people, and it’s going to take them a long time even to agree among themselves.”

Kozak recalled the months prior to the 1981 municipal election, during which the commission hosted sparsely attended public hearings and worked by hand to complete the map drawing fast. “I think it can be done, especially with the tools we have at our disposal now,” he said of the expedited timeline. “We’ll know by the next election, by 2020.”

In addition to deadlines for drawing new political maps, state law provides time for voters to challenge redistricting decisions in court, lawsuits that can further delay the process.

Meanwhile, the Minneapolis’ City Charter includes its own requirements that could be challenging to meet in an expedited time frame, Carl said. For example, the commission must host at least four public hearings on its proposed wards and park district maps, as well as reach out to neighborhood associations. By Carl’s estimate, those meetings and discussions will take at least a month.

Additionally, Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg emphasized that in order to get public feedback, the commission must first have the new maps. Following the 2010 census, he said, the group held multiple information sessions to get the public’s feedback on redistricting, but only a handful of people attended them. After the commission released the new political boundaries, though, people packed the meetings.

Wednesday’s Charter Commission meeting followed an initial presentation on the topic in March, when staff explained the consequences of the Kahn Rule, and a vote by commissioners in September that approved the initial timeline for redistricting. Wednesday’s meeting allowed Carl to present the faster timeline and field commissioners’ questions.

Clegg said the commission will continue the scheduling discussion at its meeting next month and then decide on a definitive calendar for redistricting in February. 

MinnPost state government reporter Peter Callaghan contributed to this report.