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Do: Encourage competitiveness. Don’t: Divide communities. Citizens panel releases redistricting recommendations

Indiana’s new congressional and legislative districts could improve on its current ones in two significant ways — by sacrificing compactness for competitiveness and by uniting rather than dividing cities, counties and other communities of interest, a citizens group urged state legislative leaders on Wednesday.

The eight-page report from the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, released in a morning news briefing, is based on testimony gathered during 10 virtual public hearings that drew nearly 900 participants earlier this year, and sets forth their suggestions on the criteria that the Indiana General Assembly should use in the decennial redistricting process planned for the fall.

“We hope the legislators will respect the fact that this is what people have told us,” rather than just the recommendations of the nine commission members, said commission chair Sonia Leerkamp during the briefing.

The report, delivered to leaders of the Indiana House and Senate on Monday and to be distributed to other lawmakers this week, combines recommendations for this year’s process with criticism of the one that took place in 2011, yielding congressional and legislative districts that Republicans control in numbers disproportionate to their share of the popular vote in general elections.

“The most common complaint heard at our virtual hearings was that too many districts in Indiana, at both the congressional and state level are not competitive,” the report states. “This leaves people feeling as if their voice isn’t heard in the process. People also complained that their representatives are not responsive to their concerns and they attributed this disregard to ‘safe’ districts.”

The report traces this shortcoming in part to map lines that were drawn through, rather than around, “communities of interest” such as cities, counties or populations more generally grouped by shared economic or cultural interests.

“We heard from many people, particularly people living in the largest cities in Indiana, that their communities are divided into multiple districts,” according to the report. “This is confusing for voters and can make it difficult for communities to get the representation they need.

“This is particularly problematic in districts that combine rural areas with urban areas. Constituents in these districts often have very different needs and concerns; making it difficult for their legislators to fully represent everyone … From Fort Wayne to Greencastle we heard numerous examples of cities and counties divided into far more districts than their population would seem to justify, creating confusion and again serving to reduce the political influence of the community.”

The report also stresses that transparency and public input are crucial to this year’s process, especially given the unprecedented time frame in which it will take place. Due to delays blamed on the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 census data needed for redistricting might not be available until Sept. 30; past redistricting processes have been wrapped up during legislative sessions that ended in April.

Quoting again from the report: “To create a redistricting process that will result in the kind of districts the public wants, the Indiana General Assembly should start with transparency and public participation. Give the public the information they need to evaluate redistricting proposals and provide opportunities for meaningful public participation. Conduct the process in public and explain how decisions about where to draw the lines were made.”

Specifically, the report urges legislative leaders to provide public access to their redistricting criteria, to hold public hearings in each of the state’s nine congressional districts and to allow for at least 30 days of public feedback on the maps that are proposed, adding, “The public should be given access to a mapping website and the ability to draw maps and submit them for consideration by the House and Senate Elections Committees.”

The report concludes with recommendations specific to each congressional district, including:

  • in the 1st Congressional District, keep the shoreline communities along Lake Michigan in the same districts as much as possible, and do the same with those in the Calumet region and the growing Latinx population around Whiting;
  • in the 2nd, redraw congressional district lines to restore some of the competitiveness that has been sharply reduced since the 2011 redistricting, and pay attention to the University of Notre Dame and other colleges as communities of interest;
  • in the 3rd, reduce the number of districts that extend from parts of Fort Wayne into surrounding rural areas, resulting in fragmented representation for the state’s second largest city and its school system;
  • in the 4th, pay attention to the disportionate number of prisons in the congressional district, skewing population counts in Hendricks, Miami and Putnam counties, and redraw lines to keep Howard County in one congressional district and Greencastle in one state Senate district;
  • in the 5th — where lines were redrawn in 2011 to include more urban neighborhoods on the north side of Marion County in an otherwise suburban and rural district — note the “concerns expressed about the multiple communities of interest … and how many feel unheard;”
  • in the 6th, which extends through eastern Indiana from Muncie to the Ohio River, consider uniting the downstate communities with those in other congressional districts along the river, and try to reduce the number of legislative districts that fragment representation in Muncie;
  • in the 7th, reduce the number of legislative districts extending from surrounding counties into Indianapolis, watering down and fragmenting representation of its urban neighborhoods, and redraw districts to make them more competitive;
  • in the 8th, note complaints about fragmented legislative representation in Evansville, and the decreased competitiveness of the congressional district since it was redrawn to exclude strong Democratic areas in Bloomington;
  • in the 9th as in the 6th and 8th, note the fragmented congressional representation of communities of interest along the Ohio River, and the disparate economic and cultural differences between those on the north and south ends of the congressional district.  — Kevin Morgan, The Indiana Citizen