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Redistricting: Competition or safe seats?

Competition could have nudged Minnesota’s politics away from extremes, but the redistricting plan largely preserves the status quo.

Minnesota State Capitol grounds

If you’re sick of polarized politics driven by ideological extremes, you should look beyond the counts of winners and losers in Minnesota’s new redistricting maps.

Look to the question of how much meaningful competition we can expect within districts drawn by Minnesota’s five-judge panel.

The answer is mixed if you agree with experts who say that competition pushes candidates toward the middle.

The only real shakeup in Minnesota’s congressional districts was to draw a line that left U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann living outside her 6th District. She quickly declared she will run in the 6th anyway.  

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On the other hand, incumbents will have to fight to save dozens of legislative seats. Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, calculates that the new district boundaries set the scene for competitive races in at least 51 House seats and 26 seats on the Senate side.

“That is significantly more competition than we saw in the maps drawn by the parties,” Dean said.

Least change

Even so, the judicial panel stressed that the new maps represent a “least-change” plan.

In other words, save the status quo. In many districts, that translates into saving safe seats.

A bipartisan group of senior political leaders argued early in the redistricting process for the work to be done by a special commission. Had that happened, a creative commission could have drawn lines that would have further enhanced competition and thereby nudged the political dynamic away from the heated extremes of recent years.

Instead, the work fell to the judicial panel, which started with maps drawn by partisan leaders and took testimony from partisan lawyers – although it said its process also was informed by “robust and diverse public input.”

In the order (pdf) the panel issued on Tuesday, it made clear that it did not have leeway to innovate: “When the judicial branch performs redistricting, it lacks the political authority of the legislative and executive branches, and, therefore, must act in a restrained and deliberative manner to accomplish the task.”

Banding together

Fostering political competition was not among the explicit principles the five-judge panel was supposed to consider in drawing lines for the state’s congressional and legislative districts.

Instead, their marching orders — shaped by state and federal legal and constitutional considerations — set out a different, important priority: To the extent it was practical, they were to preserve “communities of interest.” In other words, they should try not to split up groups of people who were likely to have similar legislative concerns and could, therefore, benefit from banding together to pressure elected officials.

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Minnesota is one of 24 states to observe the “communities of interest” criteria in its redistricting process, according to the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.

In Minnesota, the common interests at issue could be geographic, economic, ethnic, cultural and political, among many others.

Preserving the political voices of such like-minded groups was a top priority set by a citizen redistricting commission created by the League of Women Voters Minnesota and the Minnesota Council of Non Profits. Last fall, the commission listened to hundreds of people from throughout Minnesota’s eight congressional districts.

It concluded: “From farmers in the Red River Valley, to Ojibwae leaders in Northern Minnesota, to southeastern Minnesota’s river valley farming communities and everywhere in between, Minnesotans want to share political representation with the people they work with, do business with, and live with.”

Having it both ways

The citizen commission grew out of the coalition Draw the Line Minnesota which also included Common Cause Minnesota. Dean who heads the state’s chapter of Common Cause said he agrees with the “communities of interest” priority.

But Common Cause also observed on its web site: “Legislative gridlock has prevented our elected officials in Saint Paul and Washington, D.C., from addressing the most pressing problems that we face. This gridlock exists because the two major political parties have colluded together to draw a large number of legislative districts that one political party or the other is assured to win. Without reforming the redistricting process, our political environment will continue to become even more polarized.”

I asked Dean in a phone interview this week about the tension between the goal of fostering competition and that of preserving communities of interest.

On some level, he said, you do enhance competition in public decision-making by ensuring that districts are drawn in a way that makes an elected official more responsive to like-minded voters, especially when that gives representatives of minority viewpoints a seat at the table.

“You want to create homogeneous districts because that makes it easier for the elected officials to represent the districts’ interests,” Dean said. “The flip side is that by creating homogeneous districts you create a heterogeneous elected body.”

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Tradeoffs and tough calls

The competitive impact of the new maps may not be clear even after the 2012 elections. The truth is that redistricting is an elaborate process of tradeoffs, demanding a myriad of tough judgment calls.

Beyond sorting Minnesota voters into equal numbers per district in order to meet the one-person-one-vote standard, the judges also were required to keep districts relatively compact — no new versions of the stringy and loopy districts some states had created in past exercises in gerrymandering.

And the new plan had to comply with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. Among other provisions, that meant lines could not be drawn in a way that would deny or abridge someone’s voting rights on the basis of race or ethnicity.

The upshot is that the panel was limited in its capacity to meet additional objectives such as creating a heavily competitive state. A report on prospects for improving competition in California’s redistricting concluded that even the boldest of plans still would leave well over half the state in safe seats.

“The sources of electoral safety to a greater degree lie in our choices to live with like-minded people and in socially homogenous areas,” said the report done by Institute for Governmental Studies, University of California at Berkeley.

“Moreover, even when districts are potentially competitive, they do not become actually competitive unless there are good candidates with well-financed campaigns,” it said.

Indeed, there is contention over the very premise that competitive elections are good for democracy. Thomas Brunell, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, argues in his book, “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America,” that nearly half the electorate in a competitive district is left frustrated and unhappy after a close contest for a seat.

Competition: America’s catechism

Even so, Prof. Larry Jacobs is among those who argue that Minnesota should do more to foster the kind of political competition that would force candidates to meet voters in the middle and to do so with more civility and less extremism.

“We need to have a positive and active commitment to competition,” said Jacobs, who directs the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.

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Competition is nothing less than America’s catechism, he said. It is enshrined in our ideals for business, sports – even, education.

The rub comes with the fact that politicians who tout free-enterprise competition as if it were the national religion do everything they can to discourage it in their own races.

Jacobs does not downplay the need for preserving “communities of interest” where like-minded voters can be sure of representation. But even modest gains in competition – say, 10 to 20 percent – would shore up “a whole new center in American politics,” he said, pushing extremes back to the middle.

Minnesotans missed an opportunity in this redistricting round, Jacobs said.

“One very important step in seizing the opportunity is to elevate competition as a requirement to be taken into account along with the legal and constitutional requirements,” he said. “This is the American way . . . In every field of life we encourage competition except in politics.”