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WHAT’S THE PLAN? Legislative leaders share more specifics on the redistricting process ahead, but questions remain

Continuing our coverage of this year’s redistricting process, the following report was written by veteran journalists Janet Williams and Bill Theobald for The Indiana Citizen.

April 29, 2021

Last week, after nearly four months in session, the Indiana General Assembly passed a new state budget and headed for the exits. But the lawmakers left the Statehouse with the knowledge that they will need to return in 2021 to take on another big job — redistricting – and with their plan for that still in question.

For example, what criteria will be used to ensure fairness in the redrawing of the state’s congressional and legislative districts? Will outside consultants be involved, and who will they be? And given several more months than usual due to delays in the release of census data, how will the process be conducted to provide openness and public involvement?

In an interview this week with The Indiana Citizen, the Indiana Senate’s top Republican, Rodric Bray (above), shared a few specifics of how legislative leaders will guide the redrawing of the state’s congressional and legislative districts. The process, based on population counts from the 2020 census, will help to determine who controls the state’s political agenda for the next decade.

To those seeking more transparency and public involvement in redistricting, Senate President Pro Tempore Bray said exact details of the process have yet to be worked out, but the public will have a chance to see the map-drawing as it progresses as well as to testify about what is important to their communities.

The plan, he added, is for lawmakers to begin holding public hearings across the state as soon as July.

Even though the U.S. Census Bureau won’t release finalized counts to the states until as late as Sept. 30 due to delays blamed on the coronavirus pandemic, Bray said lawmakers can begin sooner by using “legacy data,” which is delivered in an older format and is expected to be available, according to the census bureau by mid- to late August.

During the redistricting process a decade ago, three or four terminals were placed on some college campuses to give the public a chance to draw their own maps.

“We’re going to do that in an expanded nature,’’ Bray said, “but I can’t quite tell you how many we’ll have just yet.’’

With supermajorities in both chambers, the Republicans who will control the process already have rejected efforts to create an independent commission to redraw the boundaries for the state’s congressional and legislative districts. Legislators of both parties have backed that alternative, which reformers favor to protect against districts being drawn for partisan advantage, a process called gerrymandering.

Instead, the elections committees in both chambers, both chaired and controlled by Republicans, will be responsible for holding public hearings and drafting the new maps.

Sen. Jon Ford, chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, said in an interview this week that there hasn’t been much discussion about how to proceed, blaming the delay in the census data.

“If we really don’t get the data until Sept. 30, we’re kind of pressed to get it done,” Ford said. “I don’t know that there’s all that much we can do ‘til we get the data, other than having public hearings.”

Rep. Timothy Wesco, who chairs the House Committee on Elections and Apportionment, wasn’t available for an interview, nor was Bray’s counterpart in the House, Speaker Todd Huston.

Redistricting is usually completed by the end of April, when state law would have required the General Assembly to adjourn. But lawmakers allowed themselves instead to recess after passing legislation, signed earlier this week by Gov. Eric Holcomb, to extend the session until Nov. 15.

Huston told lawmakers last week to expect a reconvened session focused on redistricting as early as September.

He later said in a post-session media availability that lawmakers will handle the process as they did in 2011 – when Republicans also controlled the General Assembly — except it “clearly won’t be as condensed because we won’t be in the midst of session and we won’t have the deadline date of April 29 staring at us.’’

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Democrats and voting rights advocates say they want a process that’s more transparent than in 2011, when they argue the maps were gerrymandered to favor Republicans.

Bray insists the 2011 districts were fairly drawn and reflect the political makeup of the state. He notes that across the state, between 80% and 90%  of elected officials at the county level are Republican.

But statewide vote totals tell a different story, Democrats and reform advocates say.

Mike Schmuhl, the new chair of the Indiana Democratic Party, noted that Republicans get about 57% of the vote statewide yet control more than 70% of the seats in the legislature.

“When things are gerrymandered, I think that people don’t feel like they really have any choices and they’re not going to sway an election because it’s already set in stone,” he said, noting the state’s chronically low voter turnout. Indiana ranked 43rd in 2020.

Schmuhl said Democrats are at a disadvantage because of their minority status in the General Assembly.

“The biggest thing we can do is just talk about the issues, talk about fairness, balance, competition and the need to elect our representatives rather than the representatives selecting voters,” Schmuhl said.

He is used to working for underdogs. Schmuhl chaired the 2020 presidential campaign of then-South Bend Mayor Pete Buttegieg, a surprise contender in the early primary contests and now President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Transportation.

Republicans, Schmuhl said, haven’t been transparent through the session and he doesn’t expect them to be transparent when the new legislative maps are drawn.

“Full transparency would be a lot more voter education, and a lot more citizen participation in what this all means for people and how they vote,” he said.

House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said that at minimum he is hoping that hearings will be held around the state to provide the chance for the public to weigh in.

In an interview during the final days of the legislative session, he said he hadn’t plotted out a strategy for what his caucus would like to see during the redistricting process.

But GiaQuinta seemed resigned to the reality of a system in which the party that controls the legislature draws the maps. “You know what they are going to draw, they’ll draw maps that favor them.”

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Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, says he tried and failed during the past session to ensure the redistricting process is transparent. He’s worried that the compressed process in the fall will hurt Democrats, because in order to run for office members must live in their districts for one year.

He said Republicans could draw maps that move incumbent Democrats into different districts, giving them just weeks to move or be forced to run against another Democratic incumbent.

He proposed an amendment that would have set out some requirements for the redistricting process, but it failed on a vote along party lines. Among its provisions were a series of hearings around the state, a website that presents information about the proposed maps and that would allow citizens to draw their own maps online.

Taylor criticized the need for people to go to a particular site to use state computers to create their own maps.

“All my amendment would have done is set up a process that requires us to be transparent with Hoosiers,” Taylor said. “Why is it too much to ask that elected leaders be transparent and inclusive about something as important as redistricting?”

House Democrats made repeated, unsuccessful attempts to propose another amendment that would give the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency responsibility for drawing maps with specific guidance from lawmakers, who would then be responsible for voting on the proposed maps.

How district lines are drawn matter and have an impact on public policy, Taylor said.

He cited the recent mass shooting at the FedEx facility near the Indianapolis International Airport as evidence of the importance of the redistricting process. He said efforts at gun control legislation had been stymied by Republican super majorities in the Indiana legislature.

He and others argue that a more balanced legislature would steer the legislature away from extreme positions and force more compromise.

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Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, has been working to keep the public informed about redistricting and why it matters.

She has already had had success in drawing attention to the critical nature of the map-drawing through a series of public hearings held by a group created by Common Cause called the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, which includes Democrats, Republicans and independents.

“This is a conversation that Hoosiers are eager to have,” Vaughn said. “That is the difference between 2011 and now. People get it. And a lot of people are not happy.”

A decade ago, the Republican-drawn maps were presented to the public after meetings around the state. But the timeline was short. The new maps for state legislative and congressional districts were approved in just 17 days, Vaughn noted.

“It wasn’t terribly transparent,” she said. “We made some public information requests asking what election data they had used, whether or not they had used any outside consultants, and they just ignored our request.”

She said Hoosiers better understand that “how the lines are drawn effects who is elected and who is elected determines what issues get dealt with.”

Leigh Morris, a Republican former mayor of LaPorte and a member of the redistricting commission, said he wants the General Assembly to commit to having public hearings in every congressional district after the draft proposals for maps have been released.

Morris said that legislators need to be open about what the priorities are in drawing the maps and the order in which the different criteria are being considered. In addition, the state should create its own website that will allow people to follow the process and to provide feedback.

He wants lawmakers to show that they are at least considering the map proposal that will be submitted by the citizens commission and if it rejects those maps, to be able to explain their reasoning.

For Vaughn, the key elements for an open and fair process include public hearings before any draft maps have been drawn, and specific information on the key criteria are for drawing the maps. In the past, she said, the emphasis has been on creating compact districts, but now people are saying that they would sacrifice compactness to increase the competitiveness within districts.

Vaughn also urged openness on the part of Republicans on any consultants whom they are using to help them draw maps. Bray said earlier this week that he expects that both the Republican and Democratic legislative caucuses will use outside consultants.

Vaughn said Common Cause has sponsored walks in the past – called “gerrymander meanders” – that allow people to see how multiple districts can be crossed in just a short distance because of the way maps are drawn. This year, the group may sponsor pub crawls to try to make the same point.

Common Cause already has posted a website with a program that allows people to draw their own maps and is planning a map-drawing contest with a cash prize for the best proposal. That map will then be used to compare with the ones created by the General Assembly.

“We can show there is a better process,” Vaughn said. She said increased awareness means it will be more difficult for Republicans to force through maps that are written just to give them a partisan advantage.

“The cat is out of the bag,’’ she said, “and the public expects something different this time.”

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.