How should Minnesota’s congressional and legislative districts be redrawn?

With the census just two years away, it’s never too soon to start thinking, or worrying, about congressional and legislative redistricting.

A panel of academics and legislative and community leaders pondered many sides of the issue today at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

Minnesota’s demographer Tom Gillaspy began the discussion by dropping a statistical bomb that will surely be the defining detail of the coming fight over apportionment — namely that Minnesota is among a handful of states that could lose a congressional seat (other states with seats at risk are: Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York (2), Ohio (2) and Pennsylvania).

Gillaspy said a population shift is the reason for the change in seats. He said though Minnesota’s population has increased since the last census, the state’s population has grown at a slower rate than the rest of the country.

“Domestic migration has slowed down,” said Gillaspy. “It’s tied to the labor market. Most people have a have a reason to move here, and a job is one of the best reasons.”

The slow growth Minnesota shares with other northern and midwestern states is not seen in the south and sunbelt states, which have grown faster. Gillaspy said states that he expects will gain seats are: Arizona (2), Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas (4) and Utah.

Gillaspy’s presentation of maps and graphs also showed while six of the state’s eight congressional districts have lost population, two districts have increased in population, the 2nd and the 6th. What that all means is either the state loses a district, or the districts are redrawn, “with 2 and 6 needing to get much smaller, and 4, 5, 7 and 8 needing to be drawn substantially larger,” as Gillaspy put it.

Tom Gillaspy
MinnPost/Daniel Corrigan
Tom Gillaspy

“If we [retain] eight districts, there will be large changes,” said Gillaspie. “If we lose a seat, the changes will be even larger. Regardless, there will have to be substantial changes.”

Looking for answers
As panelists discovered, making some “substantial changes” requires finding answers to some pretty complex and very political questions. Among the attending issues of redistricting are how to achieve balance and fairness in terms of political representation and minority representation. Some critics say certain districts are just mechanisms for keeping incumbents in office, and therefore don’t allow more diverse representation.

Those weighing in on redistricting practices and possible reform included a couple of academics and several legislative leaders with big stakes in the outcome of the state’s reapportionment fight. 

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller (DFL-Minneapolis) outlined the most comprehensive proposal of the day.

As someone who’s been through redistricting a couple of times, Pogemiller joked about the pleasure he and some others take in dealing with the intricacies and complexities of redistricting. He called it “kind of a cult.” Pogemiller said during the redistricting sessions in 1991 and 2001, he spent his “entire waking hours immersed in it.”

In 2001, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura and the Legislature couldn’t agree on how to design its own map, to set the new districts, so the Minnesota Supreme Court did it for them.

Pogemiller said he doesn’t want that to happen again with the 2011 redistricting.

“A bipartisan plan signed by the governor,” said Pogemiller. “That’s the objective. And you start with principles of reform.”

To that end, Pogemiller suggested the Legislature employ three objectives:

• Have a process of inclusion for ideas and input which could include an official, appointed citizen’s commission. Pogemiller suggested an independent commission of five people, perhaps retired judges who have not held political office;

• Make the process transparent, open and accountable to see what everybody — lawmakers and any commission — are doing;

• Have consensus on redistricting criteria that can withstand common sense and/or court challenges. Pogemiller’s suggested criteria include: do not dilute voting strength of minorities, avoid dividing communities and towns, enhance competitiveness and do not draw lines for purposes of protecting or defeating an incumbent.

“The key point for reform is to be more streamlined,” said Pogemiller.

He added that redistricting is inherently political and can be nothing but. Pogemiller said reform should not be about trying to remove politics from the process because “that’s not a task that can be accomplished.”

Issue this session
Larry Jacobs is the director of the Center for the study of Politics and Governance, and convener and host of the morning-long discussion. He called Pogemiller’s call for a bipartisan approach to redistricting the most “courageous and reasonable approach.”

“The instinct among a lot of DFLers is, ‘It’s ours, and we’re going to use it to benefit ourselves,'” said Jacobs. “But Senator Pogemiller, I think, with quite a bit of wisdom, is saying, ‘Look, I’ve been through this, it’s never going to be yours. The governor’s got a veto, the courts are going to review it. That’s not going to work.’ The question is: Do we want to be part of it? And if the Legislature wants to be part of it, it’s got to put together a broad, bipartisan agreement.”

2002 Minnesota congressional districts


Click on map to view

Pogemiller and others will no doubt introduce bills next session that will set the stage for some kind of reform proposal for 2011.

Also joining the discussion was Assistant Minority Leader Laura Brod (R-New Prague), who announced she will reintroduce a bill related to redistricting next session based on what lawmakers are doing in Iowa. She said redistricting should be done by the Legislature, not by the courts. She said her proposal welcomes public input, but said she is opposed to creating an independent commission, which she sees as not “solving the partisan issue.”  She said her bill would forbid the use of addresses for incumbents and other demographic information.

“It’s a data-driven model,” said Brod. “Start with that and bring it into the Legislature.”

(BTW, check out this Web site Brod suggested, where the public can try their hand at redistricting.)

Others putting their two cents into how the state should approach redistricting were Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove), Sen. Ann Rest (DFL- New Hope), and Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Minneapolis).

Kelliher recalled being a staffer to House Speaker Bob Vanasek during the redistricting session in 1991. She said she remembers angry House members coming to his office and yelling at him. That’s taught Kelliher that it may not be easy to find a member to staff the 2011 redistricting committee.

“I think people are thinking, ‘Hide your head under the desk and don’t pick me!'” said Kelliher. “It’s not an easy task or free of strings of what people’s interests are.”

Of course, quality redistricting depends on quality census data with high public participation. The state demographer’s office is launching a statewide campaign to educate residents about the census. The campaign’s first move is the opening of a census office in St. Paul tomorrow starting at 10:30 am. The new office is located at 180 East Fifth St., Suite 500, in St. Paul.

Marisa Helms writes about politics, east metro issues and other topics. She can be reached at mhelms [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 12/06/2008 - 07:43 am.

    The most important goal of districting is to insure that each district contains roughly the same number of residents.

    Beyond this, there is no districting scheme that reliably works for either of the two major parties, or for democracy itself. If you try to separate residents along political lines, you get on the one hand a little more political diversity, since one side of the line belongs to one party and the other side belongs to the other. But the downside to this is that you have created two safe seats, whose representatives are likely to be re-elected again and again, regardless of their competence. On the other hand, if you try to create a district in which Democrats and Republicans are evenly divided, you may get more competitive elections, at least for a while. But the downside to this is that this district is not likely to be evenly divided for long. It is likely to develop an imbalance, one way or the other, so that what you get is a large, chronically disenfranchised minority.

    Strategic districting based upon race has the same problems, even if it is done for “good” reasons. For example, every time you draw a district line carefully around an area of black residents and create a predominantly black district, you always create at the same time a predominantly white district on the opposite side of this line. On the other hand, if you try to make each district multiracial, Blacks become the chronically disenfranchised minority everywhere.

    Ultimately, there is no solution to these two problems except proportional representation (such as instant-runoff voting, or IRV). Only be reducing the number of votes we throw away in each district, however it is drawn, can we empower minorities of every kind (ideological or racial) in every district to participate more fully in each election.

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