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From Muncie: Effective representation requires fair maps

The following column was written by Charles D. Taylor, professor of political science at Ball State University and an independent member of the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, a group formed to advise and provide alternatives to the Indiana General Assembly in the decennial redrawing of Indiana’s congressional and legislative districts. This column first appeared in the Muncie Star Press on April 1, 2021.

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Congressional and state legislative districts must be redrawn every 10 years following completion of the U.S. Census. Redistricting ensures that districts have nearly equal population, preserving the important constitutional principle of one person-one vote, but it also affects the ways that politicians represent their constituents’ interests.

Unfortunately, incumbent politicians often use their influence over redistricting to draw the new boundaries in ways that provide a particular party or group an unfair advantage in subsequent elections, a practice called “gerrymandering.” Throughout history, politicians of both parties have gerrymandered to meet various political goals: to protect all incumbents in bipartisan fashion, to protect the majority party by providing it with many uncompetitive “safe” districts at the expense of the minority party, or to dilute the voting power of racial or ethnic minority groups. Only racial gerrymandering has been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The other forms of political gerrymandering are fair game in a process in which the public has little meaningful input and that lacks transparency about the data, criteria, and analysis used to draw the maps.
Several states have reformed their redistricting processes by specifying criteria to be used in drawing the boundaries, ensuring that the key decisions are made in the daylight, and giving multi-partisan commissions a role in drawing the new maps. In Indiana, the fight for redistricting reform has been led by the All IN for Democracy coalition. During the 2017, 2018, and 2019 legislative sessions bipartisan reform legislation supported by the coalition was blocked by committee chairs opposed to reform. The legislation was usually denied a committee hearing and even if granted a hearing, it was denied a committee vote.
This year, the All IN for Democracy coalition has organized the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission (ICRC) to demonstrate how a multi-partisan and diverse group of voters with no direct stake in the outcome can draw district lines to empower voters and preserve communities. The ICRC consists of nine Hoosier voters; three Democrats, three Republicans and three, including me, who are neither Republican nor Democrat. We are advocating for a redistricting process that is fair, transparent, non-discriminatory and politically impartial and that results in districts that serve the interests of voters.
Much of the public discussion about redistricting reform focuses on politician-centered issues, such as how political parties might be affected or the extent to which the GOP statehouse supermajority is a result of gerrymandering. Commentators often use technical, quantitative measures of technical criteria like compactness or competitiveness when discussing redistricting. These issues are all important, but they fail to capture the perspective of the most important people affected by the redistricting, Hoosier citizens and voters.
The ICRC is holding online public hearings to learn from Hoosiers how they are affected by the current district boundaries and to hear what principles they think should guide the upcoming redistricting. We have completed hearings for Indiana’s nine congressional districts. The testimony we have heard is eye-opening. Many Hoosiers share with us that they feel a lack of representation because of the current configuration of the districts in their communities.
Rural residents at the far end of a congressional district with a population base that is predominately in the Indianapolis metropolitan area tell us that they feel like their concerns get lost in the discussion of urban problems and issues. Similarly, people who live in urban areas that are a small portion of a predominately rural statehouse or senate district spilling over to adjoining counties, tell us their elected representatives — who often reside in the adjacent rural county — fail to understand the issues and problems affecting urban areas. People who live in mostly rural counties that are carved up by four or more statehouse districts tell us they consider themselves fortunate if there is even one representative who actually lives in their county. Because of this lack of representation, they don’t feel their particular local concerns get fair consideration.
These feelings of political alienation are heightened when their elected representatives send perfunctory responses — if they respond at all — to constituents’ letters or calls and refuse to attend town halls or public forums at election time. This indifference is driven by the lack of competition in these safe districts. Politicians have little incentive to be responsive when their district has been designed to protect them from political competition.
Hoosiers deserve better representation. Delays in providing U.S. Census data required for redistricting is delaying redistricting until a special session this fall, providing time for you to take action and be heard. The ICRC is educating Hoosiers about the importance of redistricting, taking testimony at public hearings, and will be sponsoring a contest to draw congressional, state senate, state representative district maps that will provide a citizen-centered benchmark for the maps drawn by General Assembly. I hope you will join us in this effort. You can learn more by visiting allinfordemocracy.org.