Despite the rush, maps from Monroe County’s bipartisan redistricting are well-received

What if politicians redrew election district maps and both Republicans and Democrats were happy with how it went? That seems to be the case in Monroe County, where county commissioners recently approved districts that were recommended by a bipartisan local redistricting committee.

“It worked really well,” Democratic commissioners’ president Julie Thomas said. “I cannot say enough about the work those folks on the committee did. Everything they voted on, everything they sent to us to be approved, we knew it was bipartisan.”

County council member Marty Hawk, county government’s only Republican elected office holder, also approved of the process. “I was very impressed with how it was all done,” she said.

Hawk said she appreciated the transparency and openness, with the public able to watch committee meetings online. And she was comfortable with the make-up of the redistricting committee: Republicans Joyce Poling, a former county commissioner, and Hal Turner, a local election board member; and Democrats Regina Moore, a former city clerk, and Ed Robertson, a local party official.

State and local election districts are supposed to be redrawn to align with population changes in the 2020 census. At the state level, Republican legislators dominated the process, leading to accusations of gerrymandering. At the local level, some counties have taken a similarly partisan approach while others have reportedly ignored the redistricting requirement.

Monroe County and the City of Bloomington followed the lead of advocates who called putting redistricting in the hands of citizens, not politicians. Monroe County created a bipartisan panel to recommend new precinct and county election district maps. Bloomington envisioned a more complex structure involving Democrats, Republicans and independents.

The county redistricting committee wrapped up in November after four weeks of intensive work guided by the county’s legal, administrative and IT staff. County commissioners signed off on the panel’s recommendations Dec. 1, in time to have districts ready for filing for the May 2022 primary elections.

Thomas said her only regret was that local redistricting had to be rushed, leaving little opportunity for public participation. Census data were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and local officials couldn’t start work in earnest until state legislative districts were approved in October.

Monroe County made only minor changes to precinct boundaries: for example, moving lines that ran through new apartment buildings. They left the three county commissioner districts unchanged. Since commissioners are elected at-large, they reasoned, the districts didn’t need equal population.

But they did redraw two of the four county council districts. (In Monroe County, four county council members are elected from districts and three at-large members are elected countywide). Clear Creek Township, in the south-central part of the county, will join council district 1, in the eastern part of the county. Washington Township, in the north-central part of the county, shifts to district 3, in the west.

The rationale for flipping the townships was to keep the districts nearly equal in population when District 3 had grown more than the other council districts. All four districts will be within about 2 percentage points in their share of the county’s population.

Hawk, a seven-term county council member, has represented western Monroe County — currently district 3 – since 1999. She regrets losing Clear Creek Township from her district but said she’s OK with adding Washington Township, which she has represented in the past.

In political terms, the changes are probably a wash. While Monroe County overall is heavily Democratic, both Washington and Clear Creek townships, like western Monroe County, lean Republican; both gave Donald Trump over 55% of their votes in 2020.

Hawk said she looks forward to the 2022 election and hopes to run as part of a strong local GOP team. Other than Hawk’s council seat, Democrats have swept county offices in recent election cycles.

“We need to have representation from both parties, it seems to me, in order for everyone to feel they’re fairly represented,” Hawk said.

The partisan balance is even more lopsided in Bloomington, where the mayor, city clerk and all nine city council members are Democrats. New city council election districts will need to be approved for the next city elections, in 2023, but that process has been slow to start.

The city council voted to create a nine-member redistricting commission split evenly among Democrats, Republicans and independents and including at least three Indiana University students. But while the vote called for the commission to be appointed in January 2021, it hasn’t happened yet. Republicans may be loath to volunteer in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.

Councilmember Steve Volan, who authored the redistricting resolution, said by email that he “may have been too ambitious” in envisioning a nine-member commission with tight restrictions on membership. He said he would be reaching out to Republicans and independents who might be willing to serve.

“I’m hoping we can get a commission seated in time for a meeting in January,” Volan said. “We’ll have the year for the commission to deliver a map.” — Steve Hinnefeld

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