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Despite all the talk of fairness as redistricting begins, expect lots of shouting and a likely veto of first plan

With Minnesota holding on to its eight congressional seats, the once-a-decade, inside-politics game known as redistricting can begin in earnest.

With word that that Minnesota is holding on to its eight congressional seats, the once-a-decade, inside-politics game known as redistricting can begin in earnest.

Here’s how the process is supposed to work: House and Senate committees of well-meaning legislators sit down and carefully draw district maps for both congressional and legislative offices. Each district is supposed to make geographic sense and have roughly the same number of residents.

In a perfect world, these maps would be approved with much applause by legislators of both parties and passed on to the governor by the end of the session. A pleased governor would sign off on the plan, which is to be in place for the elections of 2012.

“It’s absolutely possible to do this fairly,” said Rep. Mary Murphy, a DFLer from Hermantown who will be the lead minority voice on the House Redistricting Committee.

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Murphy went on to say that with technology offering up tons of data, being fair should be easier than ever. In our high-tech world, she noted, legislators won’t even need pencils to come up with maps that are fair and balanced.

“I would assume there’s no reason we can’t do this fairly,” said Rep. Sarah Anderson, a Republican from Plymouth who will be the chairwoman of the House committee.

Minnesota’s Republican Party agreed with that sentiment in a statement. “We are committed to developing a fair redistricting plan, which recognizes recent demographic changes that have occurred in Minnesota and gives minorities the best opportunity for representation,” said Michael Brodkorb, the GOP’s deputy chairman.

Always two views of fairness
But fairness, unfortunately, often is in the eye of the beholder.

Based on Minnesota history, here is how the process likely will work: There will be quiet, but vicious battles, even within the majority caucus, over how lines on a new map are drawn.

“Even people from safe seats have their eyes on adding just a few more precincts that would make their seats even safer,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, a DFLer from Golden Valley.

Winkler predicts that what has happened in the past will almost surely happen again this session. The majority party, in this case the Republicans, will pass a redistricting plan that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton will instantly veto. And ultimately, the matter will go to the courts to redraw the boundaries for the state’s congressional and legislative districts.

In other words, the Legislature will waste a whole bunch of time debating something that won’t matter.

And here’s perhaps what should happen: A bipartisan group, the Minnesota Redistricting Project, has come up with a plan that would remove most of the redistricting process from the hands of legislators and put it in the hands of retired judges, who would apply meaningful standards of fairness to redrawing districts based on the new census data.

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“I think it is something that the minority always supports and the majority usually resists,” said Winkler of finding a neutral based way to redistrict.

Winkler predicted bills will be introduced early in this session to re-do how Minnesota handles the process, using the model presented by the Redistricting Project in 2008. (The project, by the way, was headed by former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Gov. Arne Carlson. Others who added their voices to the idea of a neutral redistricting body included such people as former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and former House Speaker Steve Sviggum.)

Redistricting seems to increase extremism
In their report, these stalwarts noted that politicized districting has made civil debate very difficult. The report noted that in 1955, a third of the members of the U.S. House were considered “centrists.” By 2004, the number of “centrists” had fallen to just 8 percent.

Safe seats make for extremist politics. Give politicians the power to design maps and you can’t help but come up with districts that are based on gaining power, not balance.

Even with neutrals doing the maps, Winkler said, the Legislature wouldn’t completely lose power in the redistricting process. One plan, for example, would call for the neutrals to present three different maps for the Legislature to choose among.

But even that plan goes against human nature.

“It’s difficult to find people willing to give up power,” Winkler said.

Redistricting, by its nature, is an insiders’ game. But it was that issue that made this year’s gubernatorial prize so huge for insiders, because the governor ends up with the biggest voice.

In their heart of hearts, Republicans had hoped they’d have the power to redistrict the state “fairly.”

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Republicans would like nothing better than to combine Minneapolis (the DFL power base of 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison) and St. Paul (the DFL foundation for 4th District Rep. Betty McCollum) into one district.

Meantime, DFLers have dreamed of “touching up” the boundaries of the 6th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s turf, to add more DFLers to the district.

But, given the divided state power between the governor and the Legislature, expect none of those scenarios to occur.

Although Minnesota dodged the huge bullet of losing a congressional seat, there still will be plenty of smaller ammunition filling the air.

Both Dayton and Rep. Paul Thissen, the House minority leader, called on Republicans to be fair as the process begins.

“Today’s announcement sets the stage for a real test of Republicans’ ability to govern responsibly,” Thissen said in a statement. “In order to form a redistricting plan that works for all Minnesotans — and not just one political party — the Republican majorities will need to work closely with the Democratic governor and the miniority in the Legislature. … We call on the Republican majority to put Minnesota’s integrity above partisan political games as we move forward with redistricting.”

Dayton also issued a statement:

“While we will maintain eight congressional seats in Washington, we will face a redistricting process that will change the geographical boundaries for Minnesota’s representation in Washington and in our state Capitol. We must adopt a process that encourages transparency, fairness and absolute integrity.”

Of course.

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The DFL’s Murphy noted that there will be enough census data available to begin redistricting U.S. congressional seats soon after the session begins. But more detailed data, which will be needed to redraw legislative seats, likely won’t be available until March.

Two things are certain as the process begins.

All districts will change based on population movement. (Look for suburban power to continue to grow as rural districts continue to become bigger and less populated.)

And look for a lot of tumult, shouting and finally a veto.

It’s the way it’s done.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.