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‘DO THE RIGHT THING:’ Reformers urge City-County Council to adopt independent redistricting

Common Cause Indiana and its allies are calling on the Democratic-controlled Indianapolis City-County Council to “do the right thing” and turn the redrawing of council districts into a nonpartisan affair.

“That would really send a message that would resonate the five or six blocks that separate the City-County Building from the Statehouse,” the group’s policy director, Julia Vaughn, said Monday night in a webinar for supporters. “Believe me, that message would be heard.”

Vaughn said city officials should:

  • Put redistricting in the hands of an independent commission that would draw new districts without partisan influence.
  • Bring citizens into the process, providing population data and mapping software so city residents can create and advocate for the maps they want.
  • Create a transparent process, with deliberation and decision-making in public view.

The Indianapolis council has until November 2022 to redraw council districts to reflect changes in the city’s population in the 2020 census. Districts must be contiguous and relatively equal in population, and they should reflect communities of interest and comply with federal civil rights laws.

“There are no time pressures this time around,” Vaughn said. “We’ve got 10 months that they can make this an open process that invites citizen participation.”

She said it’s “a good start” that the council has announced a series of public hearings to get input on redistricting, starting Saturday at Perry Meridian High School. However, the Indiana General Assembly held public hearings last year on legislative redistricting but kept the actual map-drawing a closed, partisan process. The Republican supermajority drew maps that look to freeze GOP control of the state House and Senate seats and Indiana’s congressional districts.

With Indianapolis, the script is flipped. Democrats control 20 of 25 city-council seats and could draw new districts to their advantage. That would be a mistake, Vaughn said. And it would be wrong. “The map drawing is more about voters and communities and not about partisan politics,” she said.

Indianapolis wouldn’t be breaking new ground if it opts for nonpartisan redistricting. The Bloomington City Council, prodded by citizen advocates, adopted a resolution to have its new districts drawn by a commission made up equally of Democrats, Republicans and independents, including Indiana University students. Democrats now control all nine seats on the Bloomington council.

Both Bloomington and Indianapolis were among 25 Indiana city and county council that approved resolutions urging the legislature to rely on nonpartisan citizen commissions to lead state redistricting. But Indianapolis city redistricting has often been marked by hardball politics.

After the 2000 census, Republicans controlled the city-county council, and Bart Peterson, a Democrat, was mayor. They couldn’t agree on redistricting, and the Indiana Supreme Court drew new maps.

In the 2011 elections, Democrats won narrow control of the council; but the outgoing, Republican-controlled council voted, before leaving office, to create new districts that favored the GOP. Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, signed the redistricting ordinance. Democrats sued, and the issue lingered until 2014, when the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Republicans.

“Republicans did some pretty outrageous things, especially 10 years ago,” Vaughn said. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if there were people on the council who think it’s time for payback now.”

Marion County has turned increasingly Democratic, however, with Joe Biden getting 63.6% of the county’s votes in 2020 to 34.4% for Donald Trump. It’s also grown more diverse: Between 2010 and 2020, the Black, Hispanic and Asian population grew while the white population declined slightly.

When state legislators rejected turning redistricting over to an independent panel, Common Core Indiana joined with other groups to create an Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission. The exercise may not have swayed legislators, Vaughn said, but it showed a nonpartisan process would work.

Would the groups adopt to the same tactic with the Indianapolis City-County Council?

“Well, we’ve thought about that,” Vaughn said. “It’s a tremendous amount of work … But we might. It really depends on what the council decides to do.”

Meanwhile, Common Cause Indiana is calling on supporters to contact their city-county council representatives, write letters to the editor and guest columns for newspapers, and involve their civic groups and neighborhood associations.

“If the folks in Bloomington can do it,” Vaughn said, “I know that we here in Indy can do it.” — Steve Hinnefeld