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Suggestion from the 4th District: Should redistricting reform start at the grassroots?

If the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission is going to get its way, prying the constitutional duty of redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines from a reluctant Indiana General Assembly, maybe the best pressure tactic is to start closer to home, a leader to the effort suggested Tuesday evening.

That means cities and counties should commit to turning over the once-a-decade redistricting of city council and county commissioner districts to independent, citizen-driven panels, Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, said. That would be one way to start erasing perceptions – real or simply assumed – of politician-protecting gerrymandering, she said.

Capping an hour-and-a-half online discussion about the commission’s strategies to pressure the General Assembly – the eighth of nine similar conversations across the state in the past month and one often marked by frustration over what has been an uphill climb for redistricting reform in Indiana – West Lafayette voter Ellen Dran told the nine-member commission that she’d written letters to state leaders who “don’t care what I think.”

“What else can I do?” Dran asked, during an Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission hearing tailored for voters in 4th Congressional District, spanning a wide stretch of west-central Indiana.

Vaughn, an organizer of an All IN for Democracy coalition aimed at redistricting reform, challenged Dran and others to start pressing leaders in their own communities.

In the past decade, 33 cities and counties across the state wrote resolutions that essentially mirrored the demands of the coalition, telling the General Assembly: Give the redistricting process another layer of accountability and trust by and let Hoosier voters in on it. In the 4th District, the Lafayette City Council, West Lafayette City Council and Tippecanoe County commissioners passed resolutions along those lines on the same day in March 2016, at the urging of the local League of Women Voters chapter and others.

In December 2020, Bloomington took that another step. The city council in the university community, among the 33 government bodies that backed redistricting reform in the state, established what it called the Citizens’ Redistricting Advisory Commission. The nine-member board – three Democrats, three Republicans and three with no affiliation with either party – will redraw the city’s six council district lines, using results from the 2020 U.S. Census.

In other words, Vaughn said, Bloomington took what it considered a good idea for the Indiana General Assembly and put it into practice for itself.

“Now we’ve got to go back to those same 33 communities and say, ‘Put your money where your mouth was,’” Vaughn said. “That pressure will trickle up to the General Assembly. They’re going to have a hard time justifying why they should be allowed to draw their own districts, when city councils and county commissions across the state have said, ‘No, it’s a conflict of interest. We’re going to put the citizens in charge of this.’”

Hope of building pressure on Republicans who hold supermajority control of the Indiana House and Senate was behind All IN for Democracy leaders pulling together the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission.

The nine-member panel – made up of three Republicans, three Democrats and three independents – has promised to shadow the General Assembly to draw new district maps based on 2020 U.S. Census results.

The way it works now, the General Assembly is expected to hold a special session later in 2021 and use fresh census data to draw new boundaries for nine U.S. House, 100 Indiana House and 50 Indiana Senate districts. The only requirements for districts are that all parts of a district be contiguous, be nearly equal in population and meet standards in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The commission’s idea is to show what happens when there is less incentive to protect incumbents and party control of the legislature than there is in making sure districts don’t dilute competition and unnecessarily slice and dice communities of interest, whether they’re school districts, cities or neighborhoods.

Since February, the commission has held eight Zoom-based public hearing, one in each of eight congressional districts, to make its case. A final meeting will be March 30 for Indiana’s 2nd District in northern Indiana.

“The one ingredient that I’ve found that’s been missing has been strong public support and public understanding of why redistricting is important and support for making it fair and equitable,” Leigh Morris, a former Republican mayor of LaPorte and a commission member, said Tuesday.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Vaughn spotlighted the Indiana Senate District 7 map for a couple of reasons. First, she said the district – sprawling through parts of Boone, Carroll, Clinton, Jasper, White and Tippecanoe counties – was an example of how far-flung interests could be, piled onto one senator. Second, it was home to former state Sen. Brandt Hershman, a Buck Creek Republican who retired from the seat in early 2018 to take a job with a law firm in Washington, D.C. (Sen. Brian Buchanan was appointed to that seat in 2018 and was elected to it again in 2020.)

“Senator Hershman was probably our biggest foe in the Indiana Senate,” Vaughn said. “He just hated the idea of redistricting reform. … (He) did not see any gerrymandering in this district. But you know, like beauty gerrymandering is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.”

Hershman, not a part of Tuesday’s meeting, was open about his reluctance to changing how Indiana draw district maps, given his role as vice chairman on the Special Study Committee on Redistricting.  In 2016, as cities in his district pressed for reform, Hershman pointed to a 2014 Washington Post analysis that called Indiana one of two states with the least gerrymandered congressional districts and has done “a remarkably good job of drawing sensible district boundaries.” (At the same time, Common Cause and League of Women Voters leaders flagged a 2014 University of Chicago School of Law study that called Indiana General Assembly districts among the most gerrymandered in the country.)

“I’m still waiting to see data proving that a problem exists,” Hershman said at the time.

That approach carries through today in the Republican-dominated legislature, Vaughn said.

Public comment was lighter Tuesday than in previous editions. But there were concerns about how district lines cut through some places, including Plainfield and Kokomo. There were complaints about how prison populations – with inmates counted where they were incarcerated rather than where they were from – skewed election lines.

Helen Hudson, a voter from Crawfordsville, lamented that so many districts were uncompetitive, constituents had little reason to pay attention to campaigns in 2020 and little expectation that incumbents would feel compelled to debate or discuss their positions.

“There just isn’t a sense of competitiveness,” Hudson said. “We know it’s complicated. But that that really brought this issue home to me.”

Dran echoed that sentiment in a congressional district that has gone for the Republican candidate by margins of 60 percent or greater for more than a decade.

“I know those of us in West Lafayette, who would love to vote the way opposite of what’s happening, let’s just say we just get swamped,” Dran said. “We don’t have a chance. You know, it’s almost it’s a waste of money to donate to the candidates. … I dare say not very many people know that our congressman even looks like and that’s because there’s just no competition. It wouldn’t be interesting for the newspaper to cover this race here in this district.”

What’s next?

After the last of nine hearings on March 30, Vaughn said the commission would compile feedback from across the state and report back to those who participated later in the spring or early summer.

That will be combined with mapping software that will allow Hoosiers to take a crack at drawing district boundaries. A version of that software, based on 2010 Census data, is up at www.districtr.org/indiana. Updated data, along with tutorials about using the software, will come soon, too, Vaughn said.

The commission, she said, would continue to press for a more transparent system, regardless of which party has control in the legislature.

“It’s very easy for partisanship to take over when you don’t have many guidelines,” Vaughn said. “It’s about power – keeping political power by manipulating the redistricting process. … We believe that the public should be given the same access to mapping tools that the General Assembly will use, so that they can try their hand at drawing districts. We think that voters are likely to come up with better districts than our legislators.”

Until then, Vaughn said voters could start working on their city leaders to plant seeds of redistricting reform on a smaller scale: “That’s a good way for you to keep busy.” — Dave Bangert