After months of debates over the pace of redistricting Minneapolis, the city’s Charter Commission has said it will take its time with drawing new maps, despite pleas from Minneapolis City Council members to speed up the process in the hopes of avoiding having to run for two-year terms in 2021.
At its monthly meeting Wednesday, charter commissioners said they want the line-drawing to span 2021 and finish by April 2022, or roughly a year after federal authorities release 2020 census data.
That means Minneapolis voters are on track to elect 13 council members from the city’s current ward map for two-year terms during the next municipal election, in 2021, while simultaneously picking a mayor for a four-year term. Then, in 2023, the city will hold another election for council seats — either for a two or four-year term — representing new wards based on the 2020 census count.
“I’m sorry that some council members seem very unhappy about the possibility of a two-year term, but that’s not, I don’t think, our primary function here,” Commissioner Jan Sandberg said.
Meanwhile, the commission is preparing to ask voters in Minneapolis to weigh in on the issue. The commission on Wednesday agreed to host a public hearing next month on a possible ballot question to amend the city’s charter to accommodate the source of the redistricting debate: the so-called Kahn rule, the 2010 state law authored by former DFL state Rep. Phyllis Kahn that requires the city of Minneapolis to hold council elections soon after census-driven ward redistricting.
The ballot question would resolve a conflict with language in the city’s charter and the state law as it stands now. “It’s important that we do this no matter what,” said Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg.
Public feedback priority for charter commission
Council members prefer the quicker deadline for ward redistricting because it would sidestep the Kahn rule, which was aimed at giving voters fairer representation on the council. No census count has tested the provision until now.
A 2021 council election is already on the books. The debate under the Kahn rule is whether candidates will run for two-year terms to represent the city’s current wards — and then again in 2023 to serve post-2020 census wards. Or whether they will maintain the current standard of four-year terms under a new ward map beginning next year.
Some council members say they want to avoid two-year terms to keep a fundamental aspect of Minneapolis politics — that all city offices are up for election at the same time — and avoid the possible consequence of fewer-than-normal residents voting in a 2023 council-only election. “Our collective turnout efforts contribute to each other’s elections,” Council Member Steve Fletcher said in an interview last month.
Not only would the law mean two-year terms for council members, it would also mean higher election costs for the city. According to early estimates, adding an election that only had the council on the ballot would cost about $2.6 million, raising the city’s four-year total for elections to about $13 million.
On Wednesday, the Charter Commission acknowledged while the council-preferred timeline’s would mean lower elections costs for the city, their top priority is providing ample time for public feedback on the proposed maps before the commission finalizes them. That’s why they are going with the slower pace for redistricting.
“We cannot put a price on taking the time to consider public input,” commissioner Jill Garcia said.
2020 results could affect timeline
Much of the commission’s uncertainty on how to proceed until this point hinged on whether the Minnesota Legislature can redistrict the state on its own instead of throwing the map-making to the courts. Under Minnesota law, the city must complete redistricting within 60 days after lawmakers draw state and congressional political lines, but it’s been more than four decades since the state has been able to come up with a redistricting plan without judicial involvement.
The commission has to be prepared for either scenario: a legislative consensus on redistricting or longer process in the courts. The former largely depends on whether the DFL gains majorities in both the state House and Senate in the 2020 election and is able to finish redistricting in early 2021. (That “hurry-up” option would potentially put the new wards in place before the city’s 2021 deadline for filing for municipal offices and avoid forcing council candidates to run for two-year terms.)
In an interview Wednesday, City Council President Lisa Bender said the council has not had the chance to discuss a possible ordinance that could set the pace for redistricting. The council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, which will decide how the council will proceed, was scheduled to discuss the issues last week. But the committee tabled the conversation until its next meeting, on Feb. 12.
Bender said while she appreciates the commission’s concerns and decision to hold a public hearing on the possible charter amendment, she’s still worried about low voter turnout in a council-only election in 2023, as well as higher election costs. “For elected officials engage on an issue that affects their own future elections is challenging,” she said. “My colleagues are approaching this in the best way to go forward.”