The Indiana Citizen is committed to providing a variety of points of view on the crucial issue of redistricting. The following column, written by Indianapolis Star opinion contributor Pete Seat (above) and originally published on Feb. 22, 2021, is reprinted with permission of the author and The Indianapolis Star.
Indiana is not gerrymandered. And that is only the first of the inconvenient truths of redistricting.
Once every 10 years, states are required by law to redraw congressional and legislative district boundaries based on the federal government’s updated decennial U.S. Census data.
The latest effort in Indiana, involving the 2020 census, is still on lawmakers’ to-do list.
In some states the process is conducted by “independent” commissions (if you believe such a thing exists, I will convince you that Nickelback is worth a listen) and in other states, like Indiana, by lawmakers. This option, obviously, results in complaints of partisan manipulation.
Voters should pick their representatives, not the other way around, the saying goes. Advocacy organizations such as Common Cause, frequently on the front lines of demanding an “independent” redistricting commission to draw lines, preach this message incessantly but never present evidence to make their case other than what they see as lopsided Republican representation in the Statehouse, based on the party’s supermajority in both chambers.
To be sure, examples of gerrymandering, where politicians draw oddly shaped district boundaries to maintain or gain political power, are found in many states, with particularly ugly examples in Maryland, Texas and Illinois. But they aren’t found in Indiana. Here, gerrymandering is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the eye of the loser.
A lot of this has to do with geography. Or, as Stanford University professor and “Why Cities Lose” author Jonathan Rodden, writes, “location, location, location.”
Democrats cluster in densely populated urban areas like Indianapolis, Bloomington and Gary, while Republicans are more evenly distributed across suburbs and the rural landscape.
This results in Democratic representatives winning with hefty margins in their districts and Republicans skating by in some of theirs.
This clustering problem for Democrats, according to Rodden, dates back to the New Deal era. Back then, Americans that became working-class blue dog Democrats migrated toward factories and settled along railroad tracks. Rodden, in fact, discusses the “veins of Democratic voting” adjacent to railroad tracks surrounding Indianapolis that exist to this day.
While it was work that sent Americans packing back then, one of the driving forces of migration today is political assimilation. The Washington Post wrote that “one of the main reasons Republicans have a big advantage on the congressional map in the years ahead has nothing to do with politicians gerrymandering districts; it has to do with Americans gerrymandering themselves.”
People want to be nearer their tribe and those of similar values, which causes further saturation in both Republican and Democrat districts.
The irony, then, is in order to make a state like Indiana more politically competitive and give Democrats a shot at additional seats in the legislature or in Congress, the General Assembly would have to gerrymander. As Rodden writes, “artful gerrymandering might also be the only way for Democrats to overcome that (Republican geographic) advantage.”
At that point it would no longer be about respecting existing township and county boundaries or maintaining communities of interest – the top two redistricting priorities of voters in Ball State University’s annual Hoosier Survey – but rather about partisanship.
A coalition of advocacy organizations, All IN for Democracy, states on its website, “When legislative districts are drawn from a partisan perspective rather than based on communities of interest, like cities and counties, schools districts, neighborhoods and minority groups, communities are often divided.”
But that’s how Indiana’s lines are drawn today. Even the Washington Post, not always a friend of Republicans, in 2014 singled out Nevada and Indiana as the two states with the least gerrymandered congressional districts in the country. The General Assembly, they wrote, “did a remarkably good job at drawing sensible district boundaries.”
And in his book, Rodden compares simulated, nonpartisan districts and the districts enacted in the various states. Indiana’s state Senate districts in particular are “quite similar,” he says, to the simulated maps.
His conclusion, written in an email exchange with me, is that “Democrats are sufficiently concentrated in Indiana that it is possible for Republicans to do extremely well in the transformation of votes to seats without working very hard at gerrymandering.”
So it’s not gerrymandering that dampens Democrat prospects and keeps Indiana from being politically competitive, but the lack of gerrymandering. And that, my friends, is the most inconvenient truth of all. — Pete Seat, a monthly IndyStar opinion contributor, is a former White House spokesman for President George W. Bush and campaign spokesman for former Director of National Intelligence and U.S. Senator Dan Coats. Currently he is a vice president with Bose Public Affairs Group in Indianapolis. He is also a Council on Foreign Relations Term Member and author of “The War on Millennials.”