The Journal Gazette
Monday, July 15, 2019 1:00 am

Five questions for Andrew Downs

Political science professor, Purdue Fort Wayne

1 Does the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision on partisan gerrymandering give a green light to the practice?

The majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts refers to the “different visions of fairness” regarding partisan gerrymandering as posing political, not legal, questions. It goes on to state there is no “solid grounding for judges to take the extraordinary step of reallocating power and influence between political parties.”

This is strong language that will be viewed as a green light for partisan gerrymandering, but there is a political reality that will have to be considered. According to Gallup's tracking poll of party affiliation conducted in early June of 2019, 46% of the population consider themselves to be independents. That is a significant percentage of the population who may be opposed to partisan gerrymandering if they are aware that it is happening.

No doubt, there will be people who use the opinion from Chief Justice Roberts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of any measures of partisan gerrymandering, but people will have to remember the chief justice did not write that the methods are not valid, just that they are political, not legal.


2 The cases before the Supreme Court involved Maryland and North Carolina. Are Indiana congressional and legislative districts drawn to advantage one party?

It is safe to say district boundaries drawn by elected officials are drawn to provide an advantage to that party, or at least to not disadvantage that party. Sometimes this has worked well for the party in power, and other times not.

One of the measures of partisan gerrymandering receiving quite a bit of attention is the “efficiency gap” created by Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos and Eric M. McGhee (University of Chicago Law Review, 2015). This measure suggests there is some partisan gerrymandering in Indiana's congressional districts.


3 Why should voters care about how districts are drawn?

It is important to remember Democrats and Republicans want to be in control when drawing the boundaries because of the advantage it provides them.

One reason voters should care how the districts are drawn is because when districts give a significant advantage to one party, there is not much of a chance for competitive elections. That reduces the likelihood there will be discussions of important issues during campaigns, in part, because the minority party has trouble finding good candidates who can discuss the issues.

Another reason voters should care is that partisan gerrymandering can lead to supermajorities in legislative bodies. Parties with supermajorities can operate even if the minority party is absent. Also, parties with supermajorities can have their debates behind closed doors in their caucus room instead of in the light of day.

Our system functions best when there is public discussion of issues. When parties are able to draw boundaries that give them a significant advantage, media outlets face increased challenges to keeping the public informed.


4 What can voters do if they believe their districts are gerrymandered?

The 2017 Hoosier Survey by the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University found 47% of the respondents wanted an independent nonpartisan body to draw district boundaries. In other words, there is not much of a public outcry for a change to how things are done.

There are two additional factors to consider. The recent decision from the Supreme Court may cause legislators to say there is no need to change the way things are done here. Also, some legislators may say the census is just around the corner and now is not the time to change how things are done.

This does not mean alternative methods of redistricting should not be discussed, just that there may not be much interest in a thoughtful discussion or changing the law.

An alternative to trying to change the law is to try to influence what the legislature draws.

One key to this is to contact legislators and call for public input regarding the criteria that will be used to draw the maps. Obviously, people will have to take advantage of the opportunities for public input the General Assembly offers.

The second is for the public to use the criteria the legislature says it will use to draw maps to draw their own maps. This can be done in the old-school fashion with paper, pencils, maps and calculators, but it also could be done electronically. The public could call on the General Assembly to create an app that allows the public to draw maps. Strategically, it probably would be best if groups threw their support behind a single set of maps or at least a few sets of maps that are similar.


5 What's the most egregious example of partisan gerrymandering you've seen – in Indiana or elsewhere?

The 1st and 12th districts in North Carolina were redrawn after the 1990 census, but a court order mandated they be redrawn. People who see the court-approved versions of the districts think they look gerrymandered. When they see the original versions, they decide the court-approved versions do not look so bad.

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