Oct. 25, 2021
Continuing our coverage of this year’s redistricting process, the following report was written by veteran Bloomington journalist Steve Hinnefeld for The Indiana Citizen.
Bloomington, Ind. — Earlier this month, Indiana’s Republican legislative supermajority wrapped up a decennial redistricting process that flat-out rejected the idea of having a nonpartisan, independent commission redraw the state’s congressional and legislative district maps.
But 55 miles to the south, in one of Indiana’s few Democratic strongholds, officials in Monroe County and Bloomington instead have embraced the idea. The board of county commissioners and city council, both controlled by Democrats, will rely on separate, political independent citizen panels – “real-life demonstration projects,’’ said Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, that will show that nonpartisan, independent redistricting can work.
Bloomington city councilmember Steve Volan, who authored the ordinance creating a Citizens’ Redistricting Advisory Commission, said he was inspired by Vaughn’s All IN for Democracy campaign, which tried, without success, to get the Indiana General Assembly to appoint an independent redistricting commission for congressional and legislative redistricting.
“It’s also just the right thing to do,” Volan said. “I mean, I may be a fair-minded person, but I can’t get away from having self-interest” in drawing city maps that include his own voters.
“It shows great leadership, and it’s a good way to hold yourself true to good government practices,” Vaughn added. “If it’s good for the General Assembly, it should be good for local governments as well.”
The Monroe County commissioners got the ball rolling earlier this month when they appointed an advisory committee to draw new maps for precincts and for commissioner and county-council election districts. The members are two Republicans, former county commissioner Joyce Poling and local election board member Hal Turner; and two Democrats, former city clerk Regina Moore and local party official Ed Robertson.
The resolution creating the panel says it should draw precincts and districts that are compact and maintain “geographic integrity.” Past voting patterns shouldn’t be considered, it says.
The group will work on a tight deadline, because primary filing for 2022 elections, including county council and commissioner seats, starts in January 2022. Precinct boundaries can’t cross legislative district lines, so the process couldn’t get into full swing until the new districts were finalized on Oct. 4.
“There’s a lot of work to do, so we want them to work as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said county commissioners’ president Julie Thomas. “And they know what they’re up against.”
Thomas said the commissioners made a deliberate choice to create a politically balanced committee. “There’s going to have to be some consensus-building in order to move this package forward,” she said.
At an initial 90-minute meeting on Oct. 18, the panel made plans to meet twice a week and went over some of challenges it will face: for example, adjusting precinct lines that currently run through apartment buildings or don’t follow city and town boundaries. Members said they will involve the public in drawing county election district maps to the extent they can, given the tight deadline.
The city redistricting commission, meanwhile, must wait for the county commissioners to approve precinct boundaries to do its work. The next Bloomington city elections will be in 2023.
The city commission will have nine members: three “affiliated with” each of the two major political parties and three not affiliated with either party. Members can’t be current or recent city officials, candidates or employees or their family members.
Also, at least one Democrat, one Republican and one nonaffiliated member must be Indiana University students. Over 40,000 students are enrolled in IU Bloomington; regardless of how they’re counted, they make up a significant share of the city’s population of 79,168, according to the 2020 census.
“This was a way to sort of give students a chance to be seriously heard at the local level,” Volan said. “They have a right to vote here, the census counts them, they drink the water here and ride the bus here. When they call 911, the fire department from here answers the call.”
William Ellis, chairman of the Monroe County Republican Party, said county officials took “a step in the right direction” by involving members of his party in local redistricting. But he doesn’t like the fact that the three commissioners, all Democrats, got to appoint the Republican advisory committee members.
“This needs to be a partisan exercise,” he said. “I think the people that are appointed need to be appointed by the party chairs.”
Ellis said he’s comfortable with Turner and Poling as Republicans on the county panel, even if he doesn’t approve of how they were selected. But he’s not optimistic about the Bloomington commission, partly because it will include political independents. That was also his beef with All IN for Democracy and Democrats who pushed for a state redistricting commission that would include independents.
“There’s no such thing as political independent,” Ellis said. “Everybody has political leanings.”
He’s also skeptical that city council Democrats will choose GOP commission members whose beliefs truly align with the Republican Party. “I bet you, when this is done, I probably will not recognize more than one or two names and they will have not been involved with the party,” he said.
While Indiana legislators didn’t opt for an independent redistricting commission, advocates established the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, made up of three Republicans, three Democrats and three independents, to model how independent redistricting could work at the state level. One lesson, according to Vaughn of Common Cause Indiana: It can take effort to recruit members.
“I think it’s critically important that you get the right mix of people,” she said. “And that means really working hard to spread the word that this opportunity is available.”
Volan, the Bloomington City Council member, said he was also inspired to create a local redistricting commission by “a certain local Republican Statehouse representative.” During town-hall meetings in 2019 and 2020, constituents urged Rep. Jeff Ellington, R-Bloomington, to support fair, impartial state redistricting. He responded that local Democrats should put their house in order first.
All nine Bloomington City Council members and all three Monroe County commissioners are Democrats. So are six of the seven members of the Monroe County Council.
Countywide, Democrats have outpolled Republicans 70-30 in recent elections for attorney general, secretary of state and auditor, considered a proxy for party identification. Republicans do best in rural areas and the town of Ellettsville, while Bloomington is so overwhelmingly Democratic that the GOP struggles to field candidates. In 2019, they had one candidate for city council and none for mayor.
Ellis, the GOP chairman, said the imbalance results in Republicans feeling like officeholders aren’t responsive to their concerns. He worries that could be the case with redistricting commissions. “One of the worst feelings you can have is the feeling you’re ignored by elected officials,” he said.
Around the state, a lot of Democrats would agree.
Steve Hinnefeld is an adjunct instructor at the Media School at Indiana University, and formerly a media specialist at Indiana University and reporter for the Bloomington Herald-Times.