The Indiana Citizen

The Crossroads of Civic Engagement

Am I registered to vote?

Being an Indiana Citizen starts with registering to vote. Register here or confirm registration.

Torchinsky hiring comes under fire in redistricting hearing at Statehouse

As a group of about two dozen lawmakers filed into the Indiana House chamber Wednesday afternoon, the script appeared familiar.

From Goshen to Sellersburg and six Ivy Tech campuses in between, each of the eight previous public hearings on the 2021 redistricting had played out without much variation a few days before: the outnumbered Democrats among the state senators and representatives involved in the hearings would call them a public relations stunt with little to do with the actual redrawing of Indiana’s congressional and legislative maps; one or more of the majority Republicans would offer a few remarks on the General Assembly’s constitutional authority to control the redistricting process and their desire to hear from the public – and then sit silently as one speaker after another blasted them for gerrymandering in 2011 and warning that they would do it again in 2021.

On Wednesday, more than 20 members of the combined House and Senate election committees faced the public – an overflow crowd — together for the first time; they had split into two groups to cover the distances necessary for the statewide, two-day “listening tour” Friday and Saturday.

In a Statehouse setting far more ornate than any of the Ivy Tech facilities used days before, the hearing proceeded as the others had, with House Elections and Apportionment Committee Chairman Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola, saying lawmakers were there to listen and would not be answering any questions from the audience unless they chose to at the end of the hearing.

As in previous hearings, state Rep. Matt Pierce, a Bloomington Democrat, read prepared remarks warning that they created only “the illusion of transparency,’’ and that the actual map-drawing would occur behind closed doors where “ political consultants will input massive amounts of political and demographic data into a computer that runs hundreds, if not thousands, of redistricting scenarios, to find just the right ones that will maximize the number of legislative and congressional seats for the majority party.’’

The first testimony came from Ami Gandhi, a civil rights attorney who has been involved in voting-rights issues, signaling that more than in previous hearings, testimony would center on the potential for eventual litigation over the 2021 redistricting, including challenges to its compliance with the racial-equity provisions of the Voting Rights Act. She said public feedback should come after, not before, the proposed maps are released.

“We must be able to assess the reliability of the data and understand what estimation techniques are used, because there’s clearly work going on right now even before the census data has been released,” she said.  “We Hoosiers deserve a chance to question this legislature about the specific proposed maps, not just to make general comments that will unfortunately probably get swiftly ignored. We demand it and so does the law.” 

Julia Vaughn, public policy director of Common Cause Indiana, noted in her testimony House Republicans’ hiring of Jason Torchinsky, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney known nationally for his defense of Republican-drawn maps that faced court challenges, including challenges over their compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

“Jason Torchinsky and his firm are not known for their efforts to uphold the rights of people of color, but instead to undermine them,’’ Vaughn testified. “Putting Jason Torchinsky in charge of ensuring that Indiana follows the Voting Rights Act is like putting a person who’s been convicted of arson as the fire marshal.’’

Josh Lowry, a Westfield attorney, said that in his previous stint as a deputy Indiana attorney general, he had defended the Indiana General Assembly against court challenges over state legislation.

“Today I find myself on the other side,’’ he said. “I live in House District 24, which looks like a pixelated mushroom. There can be no reason … except to gerrymander it.’’

Some of the most pointed testimony over the potential for court challenges came from Jay Yeager, a retired Indianapolis attorney who was lead counsel for voters in a 2019 federal court challenge to Michigan’s maps.

Yeager noted Torchinsky also was involved in that case, defending Republican legislators in Michigan.

“He’s an expert on defending gerrymanders,’’ Yeager said of Torchinsky. ”He’s not an expert on drawing fair maps … He’s not coming from a place of fairness. He’s ready to defend a partisan gerrymander.’’

Karen Freeman Wilson, a former mayor of Gary who previously served as Indiana attorney general, also raised the issue of compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

“As someone who has worked closely with many of you,’’ she told legislators, “I believe you to be a group of well-intentioned men and women who want to follow the law. I am here to assure you that exercising fairness and discharging your duty to all of the people is something that we are looking for.’’

Referring to the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well as the Voting Rights Act, she said, “I won’t repeat them for the sake of brevity. But I will say they should be the guiding principles as you draw the maps for the state of Indiana.’’ – The Indiana Citizen.

Carolina Puga Mendoza contributed reporting. She is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.