One of the chief causes of the partisan polarization and political gridlock across the country is the gerrymandering of congressional and state legislative districts. To prevent this gerrymandering, voters across the country are taking the power to redistrict away from legislators and entrusting it to nonpartisan commissions. Minnesota should follow this example, but there are bills in the Legislature right now that would prevent that from happening.
Dating back to the 18th century, state legislatures had the job of drawing congressional and state legislative district lines after the decennial census. Unfortunately, this task has not always been done fairly, with incumbents and the party in control drawing lines to favor them or to disadvantage people of color or some geographic region. Until the 1960s, rural legislators drew lines to favor their constituents at the expense of the larger and growing urban populations. But the Supreme Court issued several decisions launching a reapportionment revolution demanding that district lines honor the “one person, one vote” standard with equal populations. These decisions helped but did not eliminate the partisan drawing of district lines.
Nationally, in the 1970s approximately 120 of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives were competitive, capable of electing either a Democrat or a Republican. Today that number is maybe 25. This gerrymandering producing safe, noncompetitive Republican or Democratic party seats effectively disenfranchises voters and creates incentives not to politically compromise but to entrench ideological positions. In safe districts, elected representatives have little incentive to compromise — their constituents encourage partisanship — while representatives of swing districts have more incentive to compromise, lest they be ousted the next election by someone less ideological. Were we to have more competitive and balanced legislative and congressional seats, perhaps we might experience less partisanship and more compromise. We might be better off in Minnesota if we elected a few Republicans from Minneapolis and a few Democrats from Anoka County.
Since the 1960s, the courts have more often than not stepped in to check the most egregious malapportionments, but they have not been able to eliminate them all. In Minnesota, the Supreme Court has drawn the congressional and legislative district lines every decade except for one since the 1970s. It has done a good job in addressing the worst aspects of gerrymandering, but the drawing of district lines should not be the court’s job, especially as the end product is expensive and contentious litigation.
Nationally, one of the solutions has been to create non- or bipartisan redistricting commissions, such as in places like Iowa or California. The idea here is that it is a conflict of interest to let legislators draw their own districts and chose the individuals who will vote for them. These commissions take redistricting out of politics, seeking to produce more fair and competitive districts.
Minnesota needs to do the same. A generation ago when I headed Common Cause Minnesota, we advocated for such a commission, but it went nowhere. The state still needs to do this to help overcome partisan polarization, and the time is ripe to put such a commission in place now to be ready for the 2020 census and redistricting. Yet there are bills in the Minnesota Senate and House that would prevent that.
In the state Senate, Republican Mary Kiffmeyer has introduced SF 86, declaring that the Legislature “may not delegate its duty to draw districts to any commission, council, panel, or other entity that is not comprised solely of members of the legislature.” Rep. Sarah Anderson, also a Republican, has introduced a companion bill — HF 314 — with identical language. Were these bills to become law, they would continue to entrench the partisan gamesmanship and costly litigation that the current redistricting process displays. They also would perpetuate the partisan polarization that plagues the current legislative efforts to redistrict that ultimately wind up in court. It would be far better for the state if the politics were taken out of the process and we had a fair process to draw lines that did not drag the courts into the process. These bills do not advance the cause of better government but instead impede needed reform.
David Schultz is a professor in the Hamline University Department of Political Science and editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education.