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The Journal Gazette

  • Yeager

Friday, February 09, 2018 1:00 am

Editorial

Gerrymandering in action

In fate of redistricting proposals,need for reform becomes self-evident

Redistricting remedy?

Courts are poised to step in where lawmakers refuse to act. Constitutional challenges to map-drawing practices in Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin raise hope for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that might determine once and for all whether the practices used in those states – and in Indiana – violate the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

“This is what, I think, drives a lot of interest for the lawyers in this, is the frustration at wondering, how could this be legal?” Jay Yeager, an attorney with Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, told The Indiana Lawyer this week. “How could it be legal that the state government under the color of state power constrained by the due process obligations imposed on it by the 14th Amendment can openly discriminate against people in one party because they're members of that party?”

Redistricting reform didn't make the cut as legislative priorities for either the Indiana House or Senate majority, so it's no surprise Republican leaders omitted any mention of it among accomplishments for the first half of the session. The House failed to advance any measure; Senate Bill 326 falls far short of what's needed to help restore fairness and integrity to the electoral system.

Another half-time measure illustrates just one problem resulting from a rigged redistricting process: At the deadline for scheduled committee reports, 48 percent of Republican-authored bills were still alive; just 5 percent of bills authored by Democrats remained in play. Eighty of the 85 bills filed by Senate Democrats died without being heard in committee, including SB 77, which would have created an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission. 

In short, the legislative aims of representatives elected by thousands of Hoosiers statewide are given no chance to proceed. Democracy is not well served when gerrymandering creates supermajority control, which in turn is used to silence the minority party. Drawing districts to one party's advantage also fuels voter apathy, uncontested elections, incumbent protection and an agenda held hostage by the fringes of one party.

But Senate and House leaders make no apologies for their failure to fix redistricting. Both House bills on the issue, including one introduced by Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, died in the Elections Committee, where Chairman Milo Smith, R-Columbus, has singlehandedly kept efforts to establish an independent commission from advancing. House Speaker Brian Bosma disingenuously signed on as co-author to Torr's bill, but his appointment of Smith as committee chairman ensured the bill was going nowhere.

Likewise, Senate bills that would have created a redistricting commission also were allowed to die. The surviving SB 326 is a token measure. It sets standards for drawing congressional and legislative districts without addressing the key issue of who is drawing the districts. As long as it is the legislators themselves, voters should have no confidence in the process. 

Torr, the Carmel Republican who has long supported redistricting reform, predicted in the first week of the session his bill would go nowhere.

“We'll have a difficult time because we have so many Republicans now who have never served in the minority,” the 11-term lawmaker told the Indianapolis Business Journal. “It's a hard sell. And the chairman of the committee doesn't like it.”

The Special Interim Committee on Redistricting voted nearly two years ago to recommend establishment of an independent panel to draw maps after the 2020 Census. Twice now, the GOP-controlled legislature has ignored opportunities to do so. Indiana voters, who will return to the polls this year, now have an opportunity to tell lawmakers what they would like.