No time like the present: The Legislature is already fighting over how Minnesota’s political districts will be drawn (in 2021)

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Under the Minnesota Constitution and past practices, the state Legislature — which in reality means the party in the majority — gets to decide where the lines are drawn.

Is there a chance that a legislative debate over the highly partisan practice of drawing electoral district boundaries could be done in a nonpartisan manner?

Technically, yes.

In the current makeup of the Minnesota House of Representatives?

Not really.

Proof of that came last week, deep into a lengthy debate over a mega-omnibus bill that included dozens (and dozens) of disparate provisions from four other omnibus bills, which in and of themselves are grab-bag bills filled with myriad different provisions.

How disparate? That single mega-bill contained language to include a tip credit in Minnesota’s minimum wage and block new nitrogen fertilizer standards.

Amid all that was language from still another bill — one that would codify in state law the principles that should be used the next time the state redraws the districts that determine political representation in the state.

The principles are pretty much what you would expect, given that the U.S. Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court have set down rules for interpreting the provisions on redistricting: equal population; contiguous and compact districts; no attempts to either congregate or divide minority groups; and keeping cities and towns and communities of interest together.

The next U.S. Census, which kicks off the process, is two years away, and the subsequent redrawing of congressional and legislative district lines won’t even begin until 2021. But there’s no time like the present to start thinking about the process.

Under the Minnesota Constitution and past practices, the state Legislature — which in reality means the party in the majority — gets to decide where the lines are drawn. If there is partisan advantage to be taken, the majority party will take it. When power is divided, as it was over the last two census cycles, the court has had to step in and play mapmaker.

According to the measure’s sponsor, putting the principles in statute would help guide the Legislature and the court if necessary.

But Democrats in the House took the opportunity to offer their own amendment. Rather than set up principles for the next batch of elected legislators to use when crafting new political lines, why not take it out of their hands completely? Seventeen states have some sort of commission that redraws district lines. Maybe Minnesota should become one of them?

‘Elected officials should not be picking their voters’

It might be unfair to divide positions on that question by whether the lawmaker is in the majority or the minority. There are partisans of both sides who think elected legislators shouldn’t be drawing lines that can mean political life or death and party control. There are others — mostly Republicans these days — who think commissions are something of a ruse, partisanship disguised as nonpartisanship.

But it is certainly easier to be in favor of sharing power over something as significant as district-drawing when you currently lack any power at all. So it maybe wasn’t a surprise that all the speeches and all of the votes for a commission came from DFL members of the House, and that all of those opposed from Republicans.

“Elected officials should not be picking their voters,” said Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, who sponsored the Democrats’ amendment. “The voters — the people of Minnesota — should be selecting their elected officials.”

Schultz’s amendment would have the Legislature turn the map-drawing over to a commission containing five retired judges and four citizens. The judges could not be former elected officials or party officials, and they would have to agree on a fifth judge. The four citizens would be chosen from applicants.

State Rep. Jennifer Schultz
State Rep. Jennifer Schultz

While Schultz tried to sell her plan as a good government, she also ventured into some recent political history that is painful for Democrats. National Republicans launched a strategy to win as many state legislative races across the country as possible prior to the 2010 Census. Some 700 seats changed hands across the nation and 20 different legislative bodies moved from Democratic to Republican control. One result was to give Republicans power over the drawing of legislative — and, importantly — congressional districts. In the subsequent election, in 2012, the GOP gained nearly three dozen congressional seats.

The U.S. Supreme Court has two cases pending that challenge such political redistricting. For now, however, it is legal, and has a history that is centuries old. “This is not a fair process,” Schultz said. “Gerrymandering is putting our democracy at risk.”

Rep. Tina Liebling, a DFLer from Rochester, said she thinks the constitution would allow the Legislature to delegate its power to a commission to redraw lines. And she objected to language that said additional data could be used to help guide the drawing of the state’s political map. That, Liebling said, could include block-by-block voting data that could be used to create districts tailor-made for the majority party. “It could include who the incumbent is, where they live, what the voting history of those people have been,” Liebling said.

In fact, such data is commonly used during partisan redistricting. And even in states with commissions that have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, such data is used to allow both parties to protect incumbents, leaving them to battle over open seats and new congressional districts.

‘We know the people. We know the territory.’

In response to the DFL amendment, Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, proposed an amendment to Schultz’s amendment that would have created a commission with 10 legislators from the majority caucuses — five each — and four legislators from the minority caucuses: two each. Under the current makeup of the Legislature, that would mean the 14-member body would be made up of 10 Republicans and four Democrats.

“Gosh,” said Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, “It’s a little partisan.”

Anderson said her amendment was a sincere attempt to create a commission, but with legislators in control. But Democrats saw it as a poison pill that would prompt them to withdraw their amendment.

And that’s what happened, but not before the House debated the pros and cons of commissions and questioned each other’s true motives for wanting what they wanted.

State Rep. Sarah Anderson
State Rep. Sarah Anderson

And commissions have had some of their own problems. Republicans in California have accused Democrats of manipulating the voter-initiative-imposed commission process there, despite the equal representation of Democrats and Republicans and so-called “decline to state” voters on the panel. The state legislature there has been dominated by Democrats since the plan was imposed, but then so have state politics in California, with Democrats winning statewide races that are unaffected by redistricting.

Still, Anderson said redistricting is the duty of elected legislators, who know the details of their districts better than anyone. “We doorknock in those districts,” she said. “We know the people. We know the territory. We are the experts on the maps of the state of Minnesota. Handing it to an independent commission that is ripe for corruption is not the route to go.”

Besides, Anderson said, there is no such thing as a bipartisan or nonpartisan person. “I laugh at the word ‘independent,’ ” Anderson said. “I can’t think of a single person out there who is nonpartisan. Everyone has political views. Everyone had a political ideology.”

In the end, as was expected at the beginning, Schultz was forced withdraw her commission plan, and the underlying language on the principles remained in the mega-omnibus bill, which is unlikely to ever reach the desk of Gov. Mark Dayton.

And yet: That doesn’t mean it won’t reappear in subsequent omnibus bills and become law, which would of course be subject to change by whichever party controls the House and Senate. In 2021.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Jan Arnold on 05/10/2018 - 01:36 pm.

    Redistricting

    I have posted this argument before but I will again.

    We have something called a computer, completely nonpartisan. It can be programmed with the parameters that meet rules/requirements of redistricting. What the program comes up with can be modified (but I want strict rules as to what – a good example would be not drawing the line through a house). There is no concern for who currently holds the office, just correct impartial boundaries based on census information.

    It would be up to candidates to “sell” themselves to citizens in the district.

    I would also like to see that the candidates would also have to actually live in the district.

  2. Submitted by Bill James on 05/10/2018 - 02:44 pm.

    Redistricting

    In no uncertain terms should Legislators be involved in any aspect of redistricting other than providing testimony or comments to an independent committee chosen similar to how California has chosen their Califonia Citizens Redistricting Commission. The only way that we can impact the partisian politics that are profound is to district states with a set of valid multi-cultural and inclusive criteria that is not geared to the right or left. Having Legislatures drive the car is akin to letting a 16 year old with an open bottle of liquor behind the wheel. We have technology that can be applied to this topic and all of it should sit in the hands of an independent body of CITIZENS who are the benefactors of the process. Government is in place to serve the people, not the other way around and redistricting appropriately will ensure transparency, inclusion and ensuring that all voters are represented and counted fairly.

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/10/2018 - 10:49 pm.

    Election reform

    Consider me a Democrat who wants to shrink the Legislative component of state government. Having elected officials draw their own district to preserve their advantage is not right, but so much more needs to change.

    Why do we need two houses? I would like to see a single house legislature of 99 members with a new name. With an estimated 5,731,274 Minnesota residents in 2020, that would be about 58,000 residents per district.

    The cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul combined would have about 20 seats, the entire metro slightly over half. No part of the state can get what is wants without building coalitions across regions and parties. Our politics don’t work well as parties seem to find any reason to agree on a core set of problems, much less solutions. By use of one house, constant efforts to claim credit and dodge responsibility will be undermined.

    Terms of office should change to a uniform 4 year standard. Elect the Legislature on the same year as Presidents and move the governor to the off year. That way, the Governor races will stand out. The primary objective of governors should be damage control – being a barrier to bad legislative action. Facing the threat of a veto will force a dialogue between those who make laws and those who need to carry them out.

    Omnibus bills with multiple unrelated issues need to go. I believe that is already against the rules but not normally enforced. Let’s start.

    Let’s be honest. The session isn’t long enough to get everything done. Create an automatic two week session over the first two weeks of August. If they don’t wrap up in May, they get called back in August. That should be on their own dime, which gives them an incentive to have agreement going in and limiting it to one day.

    Minnesota is at risk of losing a Congressional seat. We already contribute more than our fair share to federal budgets and the new tax law will make that worse. We cannot afford not to count any resident of the state regardless of their legal status. Minnesota needs to lobby hard to make sure the Census is not corrupted by discouraging those without legal status not to report. Misuse of census data by law enforcement to catch undocumented workers is illegal and not in our state’s best interest.

    The census may elect to ask a census question regarding citizenship status, but those who believe that is a miscarriage of justice should simply skip that question. If this new question has a huge non-response, providing cover for families. Since the census is confidential, trying to crack down on individuals who don’t answer would appear to be a low risk form of civil disobedience.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/11/2018 - 09:42 am.

      The Altar of Divided Government

      I am not one who worships at the altar of divided government, but if I did, I’d make the legislative election concurrent with the governors race. Whatever party you choose for guv, you can’t choose that party for legislature.

  4. Submitted by Matt Stevens on 05/11/2018 - 07:35 am.

    yeah right

    Show me a nonpartisan citizen who is interested enough to serve on a redistricting board and I’ll show you a liar. Dose the author and other democrats think the rest of us are that stupid? This would function just like that crony packed compensation board to give the legislature exactly what they want with the added cover of not having a vote that people could hold them to account next election.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/12/2018 - 04:09 pm.

    Computer idea

    Sounds reasonable, as many folks have said packing all similar minds into a district is not good for diversity or a compromising governemnt. Keith Ellison has basically a “0” chance of not getting elected in MPLs. This allows him to play as far left as he wants, probably the same with EP.
    Not good to “minimize” the minority and maximize the majority, it only breeds tribalism, something that has been discussed on Minn Post many many times. No, Rep. Anderson we are all not political hacks despite what your perception is.

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