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Sept. 23, 2021

The legislative responsibility of redistricting occurs only once every 10 years. It’s an important responsibility — organizing the state’s congressional and legislative electorate for the next 10 years — and a big one. In Indiana, there are 159 legislative and congressional districts to weigh against the latest U.S. Census.

Thursday morning, the Indiana House of Representatives wrapped it up in 90 minutes. A 67-31 vote, reflecting the strength of the chamber’s Republican supermajority, sent the redistricting legislation, House Bill 1581, to the Indiana Senate, which is scheduled to begin and wrap up its review next week.

Rep. Gregory Steuerwald (above), R-Avon, the author of the redistricting legislation and architect of the proposed congressional and Indiana House districts, described the enormity of trying to reconcile the past decade of population shifts with the congressional and legislative district lines.

Indiana’s 4.7% population growth shown in the 2020 census, he said, “was certainly not evenly distributed across the state.”

More than half of the state’s 92 counties lost population while several counties around Indianapolis gained.

“It exponentially increased what we had to do,” Steuerwald said. “Our goals were a transparent process, a low population deviation … We tried to maintain communities of interest. That term is used a lot but what it really means is to respect political subdivision lines.”

Steuerwald was one of five Republicans to speak during Thursday morning’s session. Rep. Matt Pierce, who has led the Democratic opposition to the Republican-drawn maps, was the first of six Democrats.

“We’re essentially preserving the status quo … in which the number of seats that go to Republicans is far beyond the baseline partisan makeup of the state,” he said in protest of the bill. “There’s a lot less competition.”

The redrawn Indiana House district map — which keeps all incumbent Democrats in their current districts — “shows some humanity,” Pierce said. “The Senate map borders on mean-spirited in my opinion.”

Both, he added, are drawn to keep Democrats in a superminority that has no voice in legislative policy — 29 of 100 House seats, 11 of 50 in the Senate.

“The minority is at a low level that’s really unheard of … that fundamentally changes the character of what happens within these walls.”

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, was more emotional in describing the implications of one-party control, at one point drawing a rebuke from House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, for straying from the legislative topic.

“You as a group,” DeLaney told Republicans, “don’t feel required to explain what you are doing.”

Referring to Wednesday’s second-reading debate on the redistricting legislation, he added, “One Republican gets up to explain and 10 Democrats rail against it … You never need us, and as long as that happens, our contribution is diminished.”

The redrawn congressional districts, DeLaney said, “are the greatest single embarrassment of this process. You managed to hand four people safe seats, four people who voted to overturn a presidential election. Because they’re good Republicans. They’re bad Americans, but they’re good Republicans.”

The apparent reference to U.S. Reps. Jackie Walorski, Jim Banks, James Baird and Greg Pence — all of whom voted against certifying President Biden’s win in the Electoral College — led to Huston’s interruption from the speaker’s podium on grounds that it was not relevant to the legislation itself.

Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, praised Steuerwald for his conduct in carrying the redistricting legislation and Rep. Tim Wesco, the Osceola Republican who chairs the House Elections and Apportionment Committee for his dealing with the public in the committee’s hearings.

“But I do have some concerns,” he added, concerning the timeline and the transparency of the redistricting process.

“Redistricting to me is a very critical and most important process,” he added, “and we need to get the process right. So far the process hasn’t hit the mark.”

The only Republican to speak against the legislation — and the only legislator Thursday to mention the effect on his own district — was Rep. Jeff Ellington of Bloomington, who said the redrawing would split his constituency, which he described as a community of interest  along the I-69 corridor between Indiana University and the Crane naval facility in Martin County.

“Having the largest employer in southwest Indiana, I’m here to defend my district, my corridor, from my proposed map change,” he said. “All see this as a bad change at a time when southwest Indiana employment opportunity needs more investment.”

Ellington was one of three Republicans to join all House Democrats in voting against the bill; the others were John Jacob of Indianapolis, a social conservative who is frequently at odds with caucus leadership and whose redrawn district would include the residence of a former legislator who has said she might challenge him for renomination, and Matt Hostettler of Patoka in southwestern Indiana.

Majority Leader Matt Lehman, R-Berne, offered one of the more spirted defenses of the bill, saying Democrats were wrong in suggesting that the way that district lines are drawn would preordain election outcomes.

Saying Democrats once held the majority of elected positions in Adams County and now hold none, Lehman said it was because voters there came to prefer Republican policies.

“Policy, policy, policy,” he said. “We’ve made this about politics.”

With Thursday’s House passage, the legislation goes to the Indiana Senate, where the process will begin Monday with a 9 a.m. public hearing held by the Senate Elections Committee. The Senate is expected to cast its final vote on House Bill 1581 on Friday, October 1.

At the session’s end, Huston said that barely a year into his tenure as speaker, he had asked Steuerwald to handle this year’s redistricting legislation. “I had no idea what I was asking”

“Our job was to draw maps to reflect the population, communities of interest and compactness,” Huston said later.  “I’ll stand up and defend these maps all day long.”

Of criticism of the decision to amend the Senate map into the House and congressional maps bill just one day after senators published the map without hearing public testimony. Huston said the House could reconvene if the Senate made changes based on public testimony.

“If they need to change (their map), and there’s constructive input and they feel the need to change, we’ll address it,” Huston said. “It is not a foregone conclusion, and that’s why I told members to make sure they’ve available next Friday.” — The Indiana Citizen.

Whitney Downard, Statehouse reporter for CNHI Indiana, contributed reporting through The Indiana Citizen redistricting reporting project, which was organized with assistance from the Hoosier State Press Association.

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