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What to know about the Minnesota redistricting plans going before a special judicial panel this week

Tuesday’s oral arguments will be the final chance for the groups hoping to influence a special five-judge panel charged with drawing new congressional and legislative districts for Minnesota if (or when) the Legislature fails to agree on a new political map.

Minnesota Judicial Center
Final arguments will take place on Tuesday in the Minnesota Judicial Center.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

A passel of lawyers will gather Tuesday morning in a large conference room in the Minnesota Judicial Center and take their last shot at influencing the special five-judge panel charged with drawing new congressional and legislative districts for the state. 

The oral arguments in Wattson v. Simon will be the final public part of the process triggered 10 months ago by a lawsuit asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to address the assertion that the 2020 Census made the state’s current political lines unconstitutional.

After the hearing, the panel will spend six weeks doing two things. The first will be drawing eight new congressional districts, 67 state Senate districts and 134 state House districts. The second will be waiting, at least until Feb. 15, to be certain that the divided state Legislature will fail in its redistricting duties.

Lawyers for each of the four groups proposing new maps, known as intervenors, will be given time to make the case that their vision is the correct one — and that the visions of the other three plaintiffs are not. 

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On Dec. 7, the four groups filed documents detailing their plans; on Dec. 17, all four filed briefs defending their plan and critiquing the plans of the others. Those briefs give an early look at what will be talked about during oral arguments Tuesday.

A typical civil case involves two parties: a plaintiff and a respondent. This one involves five: four that have proposed maps and Secretary of State Steve Simon, who was sued. The map-makers are known as the Wattson Plaintiffs (for lead plaintiff Peter Wattson, a former legislative lawyer involved in past redistricting efforts); the Anderson Plaintiffs (representing Republican Party interests); the Sachs Plaintiffs (representing DFL interests); and the Corrie Plaintiffs (for lead plaintiff Bruce Corrie, who are advocating for maximum representation for communities of color).

A fifth group, though not formal intervenors, has submitted a series of friend of court filings with a December 8 filing accepted by the court but a Dec. 29 filing commenting on the four intervenor’s plans rejected [December 8 Minnesota Special Redistricting Panel Brief, December 29 Minnesota Motion for Leave]. Calling themselves the Citizen Data Scientists, the group of 12 Minnesota residents is made up of “professors, practitioners, and researchers in data science, computer science, mathematics, statistics, and engineering at some of Minnesota’s leading institutions of higher education,” who applied computational redistricting, “a relatively new field that uses high-performance computers and optimization algorithms to systematically search through millions of possible combinations of district boundaries.” 

Here is a sampling of how the four intervenors defended their own work — and attacked the others — in the lengthy briefs that were filed in mid-December.

The Wattson plaintiffs: a least-change approach

The Wattson plaintiffs’ proposal follows a “least-change” approach that advocates that court-drawn lines make just enough changes to restore population balance while following other legal mandates set by the panel. Based on the 2020 Census, Minnesota’s congressional districts should have 713,312 residents, state Senate districts should have 85,172 and state House districts should have 42,586.

The other principles set out by the judicial panel include: not harming communities of color; not overly dividing local government boundaries; not dividing the reservations of American Indian tribes; crafting districts that are contiguous and convenient for voters; preserving “communities of people with shared interests”; and avoiding drawing lines “with the purpose of protecting, promoting or defeating any incumbent, candidate or political party.”

Wattson plaintiffs’ proposal
The Wattson plaintiffs’ proposal for new congressional districts.
The last principle leads to some debate among the four groups. 

“The plans submitted by the other parties in this matter fail to adhere to this Panel’s redistricting principles for some obvious reasons, and some not so obvious reasons … A less obvious but very important reason is that the plans of the Anderson Plaintiffs and Sachs Plaintiffs were drawn for the purpose of promoting, protecting or defeating an incumbent, candidate or party,” notes the Wattson plaintiffs brief. “The districts created by these parties can be explained on no ground other than attempting to gain a partisan advantage.” 

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The Wattson Plaintiffs have argued that the only way to know if a plan was drawn to help an incumbent or party is to know where incumbents live — and how proposed lines would impact future elections. This comes despite the panel’s assertion that it “will not draw districts based on the residence of incumbent office holders and will not consider past election results when drawing districts.”

Wattson forges ahead anyway, citing a partisan index the plaintiffs created to apply past election results to new lines.

One example that Wattson cites is how the DFL-friendly Sachs Plaintiffs’ plan shifts voters from the 3rd Congressional District (now held by DFL Rep. Dean Phillips) and the 5th Congressional District (now held by DFL Rep. Ilhan Omar) to make the 2nd Congressional District (now held by DFL Rep. Angie Craig) safer for Democrats.

“The net effect of these changes is that CD 5 is much less convenient. It is sandwiched between CD 3 and CD 4 and is shaped like a “T” or a hammer,” the Wattson brief states.

The Wattson brief also points out that the Corrie Plaintiffs’ new 8th Congressional District includes three GOP incumbents: U.S. Reps. Pete Stauber, Michelle Fischbach and Tom Emmer, while the DFL-leaning Sachs Plaintiffs’ plan puts both Emmer and Fischbach in the same district.

“By just narrowly including Representative Emmer in CD 7 (Corrie Plaintiffs’ Plan) and narrowly including Representative Fischbach in CD 6 (Sachs Plaintiffs’ Plan), with no justification other than population, it is apparent that these pairings were done to defeat Republican incumbents,” the Wattson brief states.

The Anderson plaintiffs: preserve the interests of rural voters 

The GOP-leaning group of intervenors said they base their congressional plan on a geographic distribution of seats established in previous redistricting processes.

“Each of the Opposing Parties’ congressional redistricting plans propose drastic reconfigurations to Minnesota’s existing congressional districts and fail to meet this Panel’s redistricting criteria,” the Anderson brief states, by combining rural and suburban communities into the same district. “Doing so negatively impacts the ability for rural voters to elect representatives that reflect their priorities and concerns.”

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“The Anderson Congressional Plan, on the other hand … preserves the unique interests of rural, suburban/exurban, and urban Minnesotans.”

Anderson takes issue with a new 8th Congressional District proposed by the Corrie Plaintiffs that reaches across the northern part of the state from North Dakota to Lake Superior.

Anderson plaintiffs’ proposal
The Anderson plaintiffs’ proposal for new congressional districts.
“Traveling from Lancaster, Minnesota in the northwest to Grand Marais in the northeast would still require a seven to eight hour drive that would take the traveler on an approximately 400-mile journey either first far south to Highway 2 (before heading north again) or north across the border into Canada before heading back south to Minnesota along Lake Superior,” Anderson asserts.

Anderson also accuses DFL-leaning plans of helping the DFL win more seats in Congress: “By moving first ring suburbs, which have natural affinities with and similarities to Minneapolis and St. Paul, to districts comprised largely of highly suburban and exurban areas, these parties put more DFL-leaning voters in the perennially toss-up Third and Second districts,” Anderson wrote. “At the same time, removing first ring suburbs and adding outer suburban voters to the urban Fourth and Fifth districts pose no real risk to DFL candidates, incumbents, or the party, because the Fourth and Fifth districts have had highly reliable DFL majorities for decades.”

The Sachs plaintiffs: other proposals aren’t responsive to ‘clear wishes of Minnesotans’

The DFL-leaning group relies heavily on testimony given during the five-judge panel’s public hearings in October and criticizes others — especially Anderson and Wattson — for not taking that testimony into account. (For their part, those intervenors say Sachs cherry picks testimony that supports their decisions and disregards others.)

Sachs also accuses the Wattson plaintiffs of overly strict adherence to its least-change philosophy. “Rather than draw districts that are responsive to the state’s geography and demographics, they instead pursue what they characterize as a least-change approach, one that rigidly focuses on calcified lines on a map and not the wishes and needs of Minnesotans statewide,” the Sachs brief states. “Their overemphasis on staticity for its own sake has produced proposed maps that are non-responsive to the clear wishes of Minnesotans as expressed to the Panel — and that will consequently fail to accurately reflect the human geography of the state.”

Sachs plaintiffs’ proposal
The Sachs plaintiffs’ proposal for new congressional districts.
Sachs is more complimentary of the Corrie plan, which it says has “endeavored to draw a congressional map that responds to the needs of Minnesota’s minority communities — an objective that the Sachs Plaintiffs applaud. But their map ultimately disregards the other critical qualities that define Minnesota and its incumbent parts, uniting disparate sections of the state while separating communities of interest centered on history, geography, and industry.”

Sachs also criticizes Wattson for using election analyses and incumbent location data. “The Sachs Plaintiffs maintain that these sorts of partisan considerations ask the Panel to delve into troubling political waters,” Sachs stated. “Whether the parties’ proposed plans avoid impermissible political entanglements should instead be judged based on the degree to which they otherwise satisfy the Panel’s neutral redistricting criteria, particularly evidence in the record regarding the suitability of joining communities within the same district and dividing others among different districts.”

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Sachs also objects that Anderson and Wattson continue to have a First Congressional District that runs across the entire border with Iowa, accusing them of “slavish devotion to prior district lines.” The Sachs plan instead joins the southwest counties with a new 7th Congressional district that would run north and south from Iowa to Canada.

The Corrie plaintiffs: maximize the clout of BIPOC communities

While both Corrie and Sachs criticize the Wattson plan for the least-change approach and a desire to avoid splitting local governments and precincts, they do so with different conclusions. Said Sachs: “the Wattson Plaintiffs have ignored the Redistricting Principles laid out by this Panel, and instead prioritized their own principles, particularly preserving voting precincts and ensuring political competitiveness based on past election results.”

But Corrie sees much different motives. “In stark contrast to the Panel’s directive, the Wattson brief makes clear that its maps were created to ensure each incumbent is protected and unabashedly describes how districts were created based on where incumbents live and how to solidify their votes. … Throughout their discussion, the Wattson Plaintiffs make scant mention of Minnesota’s BIPOC communities. Rather, they pursue incumbent protection in the guise of protecting minority voting rights, perhaps hoping this Panel will not see they have directly contravened this Panel’s Redistricting Principles.”

Corrie plaintiffs’ proposal
The Corrie plaintiffs’ proposal for new congressional districts.
Corrie objects to the least change approach because it conflicts with its founding goal of maximizing the political clout of communities of color. “At this juncture in our state’s history — on the heels of 10 years of explosive population growth amongst Minnesota’s BIPOC communities, and with communities of color continually left behind by almost any economic measure — this focus is appropriate and entirely necessary,” the Corrie brief states.

“The Corrie Plaintiffs’ House Plan has 24 districts with 30% or greater minority voting-age population. The Sachs Plaintiffs’ House Plan also has 24, but the Wattson Plaintiffs’ has only 21, and the Anderson Plaintiffs’ has only 18. The Corrie House Plan is the only plan that creates a district (HD 2B) where American Indian/Native American residents constitute 44.5% of the district population, giving this community the ability to elect candidates of choice when voting in alliance with others.”

And Corrie explains its choice to spread the 8th Congressional District from east to west as a way to get the state’s tribal nations into a single district.

“As the only map proposal that places all of northern Minnesota in one district, thereby bringing together the three largest American Indian reservations (Red Lake Nation, White Earth Nation, and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe) as well as four other tribal reservations (such as Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa) and trust lands, the Corrie Congressional Map is the only map that abides by the Court’s Redistricting Principles.”