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Half of Minnesota’s U.S. House races are competitive this year — do we have the courts to thank?

In Minnesota, the Legislature draws district lines. Except it doesn’t.

Most states have few, if any, competitive races, and fewer have half or more expected to be a real contest at all.
REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot

As summer turns to fall across the northwoods and the farmlands and the suburbs of Minnesota, at least two things are certain: It’s going to get chilly out and there’s going to be a lot of congressional campaign ads on television.

For most Minnesotans, the ads will be tough to escape. Much of the state by land mass and roughly half its people live in four out of eight Minnesota congressional districts that are considered very competitive: southern Minnesota’s District 1, suburban districts 2 and 3 and northeastern Minnesota’s District 8, rated as toss ups, per Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan newsletter that rates the competitiveness of congressional races.

That makes Minnesota something of an outlier. Most states have few, if any, competitive races, and fewer have half or more expected to be a real contest at all.

How did we get so lucky?

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As with all things electoral politics, the reasons for Minnesota’s competitive elections are complicated, but one big reason could have to do with the way our district lines themselves were drawn in Minnesota — thanks to a four-decades-running fluke.

Partisan lines

States redraw district lines every 10 years after the Census. In many states the redistricting process has the potential to be partisan. The majority of states make it the legislature’s job to redistrict, which can give the party with more power more influence.

In states where one party is in control, legislative redistricting can result in districts that favor the party in power: It’s politically advantageous to draw lines that pack the opposing party’s voters into a limited number of districts or break them up to dilute their influence.

In states where the legislature and the governorship are under different parties’ control, the maps often protect incumbents because that’s the only solution to which the two parties can agree.

Other states give the job to a redistricting commission or advisory panel, but the makeups of those boards take on different shapes — and some replicate the partisanship built into legislative redistricting.

“Those commissions are not all the same. Some are still just as partisan as the legislature would be,” said Wendy Underhill, director of the elections and redistricting team at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The U.S. Supreme Court has acknowledged it happens, but hasn’t ruled on the degree to which it’s permissible to draw district lines to favor one party or another — called “Gerrymandering.” Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that race may be a factor included in determining districts, but that lines may not be drawn to unduly dilute or concentrate racial minorities.

Some states have laws that technically prevent redistricters from using data about political affiliation to draw lines, but when the makeup of the panels (or the legislature) are partisan, so too can be the lines.

Four-decade fluke

As in a majority of U.S. states, the Legislature draws lines that divide Minnesota into legislative and congressional districts.

Except that it doesn’t. Not since the ’70s has the Minnesota Legislature been able to pass a congressional redistricting plan and get it signed by the governor.

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In the 1980s, the plan by a DFL-controlled House and Senate failed to present a plan to Republican Gov. Al Quie. In the ’90s, the plan by a DFL-controlled House and Senate was vetoed by Republican Gov. Arne Carlson. In 2001, the split-controlled Legislature failed to get a plan to Gov. Jesse Ventura. In 2011, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a plan from the Republican-held Legislature.

When redistricting plans can’t be passed through the legislative process, the task goes to the courts.

Because Minnesota’s legislative process has failed to produce redistricting plan in recent decades, it’s been up to judges to decide on the lines based on the state’s redistricting criteria: preserving “communities of interest” — this could be, for example, the Iron Range, St. Cloud and the communities it’s connected to, or the Red River Valley. The districts are supposed to be compact, and not divide counties, cities or townships unless necessary and not protect or attempt to defeat incumbents.

Having the courts draw the lines has been kind of a decades-long fluke, but that doesn’t seem to have been a bad thing for Minnesota, said Peter Wattson, a longtime Minnesota legislative staffer and redistricting expert.

“I think we’ve been the beneficiaries of divided government,” he said.

Since the courts have been drawing lines, none of the maps in Minnesota has faced legal challenges from either party for being unfair.

At the heart of political representation is the concept that districts should be representative of the people who live in them. In Minnesota, experts say the courts have done a good job, and the party affiliation of the state’s voters seems to be pretty well represented. And while competitive districts isn’t the goal, it seems to be the effect.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for having a neutral panel of judges, as opposed to partisan politicians, drawing the lines, said retired Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Thomas Kalitowski, who served on the redistricting panel in 2001. They don’t have a direct interest in looking at party ID or protecting incumbents.

Minnesota seems to have a fairer map than most places, said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. The current delegation — five Democrats, three Republicans — more or less mirrors the way the state votes as a whole.t

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In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton got 46.4 percent of the vote, and Donald Trump got 44.9 percent. No Republican has won statewide since Tim Pawlenty, in his bid to be re-elected as governor in 2006, but several have come close.

“It’s a slightly Democratic-leaning swing state,” Kondik said.

According to a mathematical measure of partisan gerrymandering proposed as a legal standard in a Wisconsin redistricting court case called the “efficiency gap,” Minnesota’s congressional districts are not overly partisan.

The end of an era?   

Even if court-drawn districts have worked well for Minnesota, they remain a quirk of divided government. As such, their future is uncertain.

There are two more big elections, the first this November and the second in 2020, where the current district lines will be used before the 2020 Census forces a redraw in 2021. Whom Minnesota elects as governor in November, and who controls the Legislature during redistricting, to be determined in 2020, will be instrumental in dictating how the lines are drawn.

If Minnesotans, for the first time in decades, have one-party control in the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, the next redistricting could be the first in decades to be drawn the way they’re supposed to be in the Minnesota Constitution — by the Legislature.

In Minnesota, the last successful legislatively drawn congressional redistricting plan, passed in the ’70s,was an example of incumbent protection, said Wattson.

Some want to take the power to redistrict out of the hands of the Legislature altogether.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Gov. Arne Carlson proposed appointing panel of retired judges who would draw district lines rather than the Legislature. Other groups have proposed independent commissions in different forms.

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In making their case, they’ve cited concerns that the Legislature could draw overly gerrymandered lines, and also concerns that the judicial branch shouldn’t be forced to be so entangled with the Legislature.

Judges are called upon to decide a range of things, but they aren’t experts in redistricting, Kalitowski said.

“Presumably, you could have people who have specific expertise, whether it’s demographers or political scientists or someone who might be more adept at defining a community of interest.” Kalitowski said. “It isn’t that judges can’t do it, it’s just that there might be something more — maybe you get a commission that’s more objectively expert in those kinds of things.”