The following report was written by veteran journalists Janet Williams and Bill Theobald for The Indiana Citizen.
Nov. 18, 2021
Maybe you thought the political drama of redistricting was over for another decade.
That would be wrong. Very wrong.
It’s been more than six weeks since Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law Indiana’s new congressional and legislative district maps, but dozens of Indiana counties, cities and school corporations still face the complex and critical task of redrawing the boundaries for their own local offices – against a much tighter deadline because of census delays.
According to one oversight group, some local government and school officials are refusing to redistrict despite a clear mandate in state law, illustrating a legal hole in the redistricting process that leaves no one with oversight or authority to make sure local officials carry out their responsibilities.
Among those that have begun redistricting, some local officials are hearing the same charges that were leveled against the Republicans supermajorities in the General Assembly – that they gerrymandered House, Senate, and congressional districts to maintain their grip on power.
In St. Joseph County, citizens attending recent public hearings decried the Republican-led redrawing of county commission districts as racist, saying the redistricting packs Black residents into a single district in South Bend, thus reducing their political power.
In Marion County, majority Democrats who will be responsible for redrawing City-County Council districts in 2022 have yet to embrace the redistricting reforms that they have urged, without success, upon the state legislature.
Overall, abuse of the redistricting process has emerged from its usual behind the scenes role to become the focus of democracy reform advocates who believe gerrymandered districts giving one party a disproportionately strong advantage skew the political system, reducing competitive elections and dampening voter turnout and other forms of political participation. They also contribute to political gridlock by favoring candidates at the extremes of the political spectrum.
The census numbers that state and local officials needed to draw new districts didn’t arrive until late summer this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and other delays in conducting the decennial population count.
The Indiana General Assembly approved the newly drawn state legislative and congressional maps on Oct 1. Only with Holcomb’s signature three days later could local officials redraw precinct boundary lines – voting districts – to reflect the shifts in local population. The deadline to complete them was Oct. 15.
Those precinct maps are used by counties, cities, towns and school boards to draw their local district boundaries so they are roughly equal in population.
For counties and school boards, with elections in 2022, the deadlines are tight. The new precincts and districts should have been approved by Nov. 7 – a year before the next election. State law requires candidates to have lived in districts in which they are running one year before an election.
“This late census data has (county) clerks in an awkward spot,” said David Bottorff, executive director of the Association of Indiana Counties. As a result, work that usually took months is being condensed into a few weeks.
Knox County Clerk David Shelton has been preparing for local redistricting for months, making sure council members and his fellow clerks understand the process and expectations. He noted that in governing bodies elected by district, the districts cannot deviate more than 10% in population. If the deviation is less than 10%, then districts lines don’t have to be redrawn.
It’s up to local officials to examine the populations shifts and then redraw the boundaries for commissioner and council districts. Neither the Association of Counties nor the Indiana Association of County Commissioners keeps a count of the local county commissioner boards and councils must have their local maps redrawn because of population shifts.
Stephanie Yager, executive director of the Indiana Association of County Commissioners, said that of the state’s 92 counties, two elect commissioners by district – Lake and St. Joseph counties. Marion County’s commissioners are also countywide-elected officers – assessor, treasurer and auditor. For the other 89 counties, commissioners must live in specific districts but are elected countywide and it’s up to individual county officials to examine the census data to determine whether new district maps should be drawn.
Bottorff said that his organization doesn’t keep track of which county commission and council districts have seen changes in population.
Besides being close in population, state law requires that districts be compact, contiguous, and not cross precinct boundaries.
The mechanics of map drawing can be cumbersome and confusing, especially for those who never have dealt with the once-every-decade process, Shelton said. First the data must be downloaded, then merged with new precinct maps to determine the population count district by district.
“The data comes in a format that’s not user friendly,” Shelton said, and is in the hands of some local officials who had never been involved in the process before this year. Many struggle to get the work done and he’s been helping some other clerks download the data into a format they can use to draw new maps.
Failure to act can be costly, he said, noting that over the decades, there has been litigation holding local officials to account for not drawing new maps as required, or gerrymandering districts to favor one political party over another.
Suing is the final option that citizens have if their local council, board of commissioners or school board fails to redraw district lines to reflect population shifts.
That’s what happened in 2012 when students involved in DePauw University’s Local Government Redistricting Project identified the North Putnam school system near Greencastle as one that had electoral districts with a wide deviation in population – one at 4,011 and another at 823. Former DePauw University instructor Kelsey Kauffman organized the project to examine how local elected officials handle redistricting.
The Indiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, representing a resident of the school system, filed suit against the school system saying the disparity in population between districts violated state law and the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection provision.
The argument was that those in the districts with higher populations have their votes diluted in comparison to those in less populated districts, violating the principle of one person, one vote. Eventually, North Putnam switched to residential districts, meaning school board members are elected at large. That made the lawsuit moot, and it was dismissed in January 2014.
A similar effort in Vigo County, spearheaded by Kauffman’s group, brought a similar result with an agreement reached to draw new maps.
Angela Nussmeyer, the Democratic co-director of the Indiana Election Division, said local governments that don’t redistrict when they should after the most recent census face the same vulnerability to lawsuits. But it’s up to citizens and not the Election Division or any other statewide oversight body to act.
Nussmeyer was adamant that it is the responsibility of local government officials – not state officials – to determine whether they need to redistrict and to follow through with the process.
And there appears to be no interest in assigning some person or agency with that oversight responsibility.
Rodric Bray, president pro tempore of the Indiana Senate, said he hasn’t seen a problem with local officials failing to redistrict.
“Obviously, the statute’s very clear that’s a requirement that they have to do,” said Bray, a Republican from Martinsville. The expectation is that local governments will do their jobs and Bray doesn’t believe that a state agency should be an enforcer.
“If there becomes a larger need where local governments simply decided not to do it, we could try to address that,” Bray said, referring to legislative action.
This year, Kauffman, with the help of attorney Sarah Hannan, a former DePauw student, is continuing the work of the redistricting project. She and Hannan have surveyed the state’s 92 counties and have identified five counties as so far declining to go through a required redistricting. Another 10 are likely to also not redraw their lines even though they should, according to the survey, which is similar to one they did after the 2010 census.
But Kauffman said the results of this year’s survey are much better than the one a decade ago when many more counties did not draw new maps for county council districts, and many were not even aware they needed to.
“Compared to 2011, the counties are doing a phenomenal job, especially given how late they received the census data this year,” Kauffman said. State officials are doing a better job of providing support to county officials who may lack expertise in redrawing district boundaries but need to do more.
The situation with school systems, Kauffman said, is more uncertain and problematic simply because it is not clear – often to officials themselves – whether they should be redistricting. That’s because some school systems don’t know what kind of districts they have.
Many school systems elect all school board members at large and are not required to redistrict. It’s the others — in which some members are elected by voters in specific geographic areas, called electoral districts, which may be required to redraw lines to accommodate shifting populations.
A simple solution that some have instituted is to switch to all at-large board members, thus ridding themselves of the need to draw new lines.
Kauffman said of the nearly 300 school systems in the state, 35 at most may have electoral districts. Of those, upwards of four may simply switch to so-called residential districts where redistricting is not needed. Another five are doing redistricting while nine are uncertain.
Four don’t need to change boundaries because the population difference between districts found in the 2020 census is not that great. A dozen haven’t responded to the survey. Finally, one system is so far declining to participate in redistricting.
Lisa Tanselle, general counsel for the Indiana School Boards Association, estimates about 15 percent of the state’s school systems have electoral districts and therefore may be subject to redistricting.
Given the procedural requirements of redrawing boundaries, Tanselle doesn’t think those school systems that decide to redistrict will complete the process by Dec. 31. “The law can’t make you do the impossible,” she said. The goal, instead, Tanselle said, is to make sure the new districts are in place for the 2022 school board elections.
Redistricting in some local municipalities is mirroring the tensions that played out statewide at the General Assembly.
In St. Joseph County, one of the two that elect commissioners by district rather than at large, Republican commissioners earlier this week approved new maps for the county’s three commission districts in a 2-1 vote. Many attending public hearings before the vote decried the new maps as favoring the GOP and diluting the power of Black residents.
Critics also accused the Republican-controlled commission of failing to be open in the redistricting process, and faulted the commission for paying $35,000 to the law firm of former Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican, to help draw the maps.
Trina Robinson, president of the South Bend NAACP, called the St. Joseph County maps “blatant racism” and said she would be taking the matter to state NAACP officials to determine what action to take if the maps are approved without changes. “We cannot stand by and allow this to happen.”
Information about the County Commissioners’ redistricting was published as a legal notice in local newspapers and an initial meeting about the map drawing received media coverage but many of those speaking said they were not aware of the process and said commissioners should have done more to notify and involve the public.
Some believe this had an effect on the number of citizen-drawn maps – two — presented to the commissioners. One was drawn by St. Mary’s College math and computer science professor Ranjan Rohatgi, who was a member of the statewide Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission. Notwithstanding Rohatgi’s active criticism of the St. Joseph County process and final commission map and his membership on the ICRC, a push to create a county-level independent redistricting commission never emerged.
Nonetheless, Rohatgi said in an email to The Indiana Citizen, “there are several of us who believe that we should have a citizen’s commission drawing commission and council lines and will be fighting to change this for the next redistricting cycle.’’
How the St. Joseph County Commission district maps are drawn will have a trickle-down impact on how the St. Joseph County Council redraws its districts, because those districts must stay within the county commission district boundaries, a process known as nesting.
Democrats control the St. Joseph County Council and have criticized the county commission map proposal. The county council has approved spending $36,000 to hire Indianapolis law firm of Ice Miller to help draw the county council district boundaries. That effort will be led by former House Speaker John Gregg, a Democrat and two-time candidate for governor, and former Democratic state party chairman Kip Tew.
In Marion County, where the Democrats hold a supermajority on the Indianapolis City-County Council, some activists are arguing for a nonpartisan commission to draw council district lines, much as the Bloomington city and Monroe County governments have done.
Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana and organizer of the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, said her group will be pushing for implementation of the nonpartisan commission in Indianapolis.
The council was one of 25 Indiana cities that passed a resolution supporting an independent commission to draw the state legislative and congressional districts. Republicans who control the Indiana General Assembly refused and drew maps criticized as giving them a disproportionately strong advantage.
Vaughn said it is simply a matter of Democrats “doing the right thing. You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth.”
But Vaughn is not optimistic. “This is all about power,” she said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they are out for a little pay back.”
State Rep. Blake Johnson, an Indianapolis Democrat who previously served on the City-County Council, said creating a nonpartisan commission would be ideal. “And if they’re not going to do that, then it should be the most transparent process that could possibly be,” he added.
Democrat Zach Adamson, vice president of the council, said work had not yet begun on how to draw the maps and referred questions to Brandon Herget, the council’s policy director. In written statements, neither would say specifically whether the council would use a nonpartisan commission to draw the new council maps. City-County council maps must be finalized by Nov. 8, 2022, a year before the next election.
While school and county officials across Indiana are wrestling with the current round of redistricting, Kauffman has some suggestions for improving the process in the future. Among her ideas:
- State education officials should maintain a publicly accessible list of the school corporations in the state and what kind of electoral system they have.
- School board organizational plans (which must be approved by state education officials) should be digitized and made available on the internet.
- The state should publish census data online for both counties and school corporations.
In the meantime, Kauffman promised that her group would turn to the courts to hold accountable any counties and school corporations who refuse to redistrict.
“Yes, we will,” Kauffman said. “And I have told people that. My intent is to enable lawsuits against all Indiana counties or school boards that make no effort to redistrict and have egregious population deviations or other violations.”
Janet Williams recently retired as executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com at Franklin College. She formerly worked in corporate communications for Cummins Inc., and as a reporter and editor at The Indianapolis Star.
Bill Theobald is a veteran Washington, D.C., -based journalist who most recently worked in the USA TODAY Washington Bureau and for the nonprofit news website The Fulcrum, which focuses on democracy reform efforts. He was a reporter and editor for The Indianapolis Star from 1990 to 2005.