Civic groups invite Minnesotans to help carve state into new political districts

Saying that “voters should pick their politicians, not the other way around,” a consortium of local civic groups is inviting Minnesotans to engage in the process of carving the state into new political districts.

That process officially started this week after the U.S. Census Bureau delivered the counts from the 2010 Census to Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders from both parties.

Groups behind the “Draw the Line Minnesota” project say it is important to shine a spotlight on redistricting over the next year. They are pushing for increased public participation and greater protection of minority voting rights in the creation of new political maps. They also are getting ready to propose alternatives to plans working their way through the Legislature.

Shuffled Minnesota
It could be a close-to-home exercise. While the lines for Minnesota’s eight congressional districts draw the bulk of the attention on a statewide level, Census-driven change could alter the maps for every seat in the Legislature as well as for local city council, school board and county commissioners – even soil and water conservation boards and park boards.

Minnesota residents shuffled themselves in significant ways that will alter almost every aspect of our political maps.

What the 2010 head count shows from a bird’s eye view is that a broad swath of the state — cutting an arc across the northern, western and southern borders lost population during the decade. The exceptions were regional centers like Moorhead and especially Rochester, which grew by 24.4 percent.

The six counties that lost population by double digits were Faribault (down 10.1 percent), Kittson (13.9 percent), Lac qui Parle (10 percent), Lake of the Woods (10.5 percent), Swift (18.2 percent) and Traverse (13.9 percent).

The losses were more than made up by booming growth in the Twin Cities exurban area. The fastest growing county was Scott — up by 45.2 percent over the decade — followed by Wright (38.6 percent), Sherburne (37.4 percent), Chisago (31.1 percent) and Carver (29.7 percent).

Bear down closer, and you see at the city level that Minneapolis and St. Paul held nearly even. Minneapolis lost a statistically insignificant 40 residents. St. Paul was down about 2,000, a drop of 0.7 percent.

Bloomington and Duluth lost a bit too. But St. Cloud, Woodbury and Brooklyn Park joined Rochester in growing by double digits.

You can look up your own counties, cities, legislative and congressional districts at the State Demographer’s web site.  

Once-in-a-decade opportunity
Now that the census numbers are public, the groups behind the “Draw the Line Minnesota” project aim to keep the redistricting process that way too. The project’s organizers include Common Cause Minnesota, League of Women Voters Minnesota, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and TakeAction Minnesota.

“Redistricting needs to focus on ensuring that voters get the fairest and best possible representation, not on preserving political majorities.” said Laura Fredrick Wang, interim executive director of the League of Women Voters Minnesota. “This is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to transform a system that lets lawmakers choose their voters, when it should be the other way around.”

For starters, the organizers are inviting Minnesotans to sign onto a set of principles and offering speakers who can explain redistricting to groups around the state. Information is available on a website hosted by Common Cause.

The project is a collaboration of the Midwest Democracy Network — an alliance of 25 groups advocating for political reform, civil rights, and other interests in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, with technical support from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

By April, they plan to offer an online exercise called District Builder that will enable citizens and advocacy groups to draw their own political maps. In addition to the other Midwestern states, they will be working with the Public Mapping Project, and Metro Chicago Information Center.

Real, not illusory
Being diplomatic, the groups say they are open to working collaboratively with legislatures but they also pledge to serve as a public-interest counterweight to legislative redistricting processes.

Minnesota legislators who already have started the 2011 redistricting process have promised to be totally open and transparent about drawing the maps that will determine their own political futures and the strength of their respective parties.

These groups aim to hold them to that promise.

“Legislative invitations for public participation must be real, not illusory,” said Marcia Avner, Policy Fellow with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. “Regardless, our Minnesota coalition will be there every step of the way on behalf of voters to pursue a government that fairly and honestly represents them.”

Further information about the project is available here.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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