Even before the 2018 midterm elections are over, political pros are focusing on a more distant prize: the 2021 redistricting that will remake the political map for a decade. If that seems too far off to worry about, be mindful that both sides are already deep into the fight.
By the end of the last legislative session, some Minnesota House members were laying down markers on guiding principles. They were good ones, too: Political districts must have equal populations; must be contiguous and compact (no thin fingers sticking out to grab some choice town that could tip the political scales); there must be no blatant attempts to divide or congregate minority groups and, to the extent possible, no needlessly carving up cities and towns. To see the extremes that can result when such principles aren’t followed, Google “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck.” What pops up is Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District, drawn in such a convoluted way that the state’s Supreme Court said it violated that state’s constitution, so blatantly did it favor the Republicans who stitched together pieces of five counties and 26 municipalities to create it.
Then there’s the way Maryland’s Third District morphed over six decades, from a relatively compact district to one that snakes, bulges and sprawls across four counties, prompting one federal judge to recall “a broken-winged pterodactyl, prostrate across the center of the state.
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently came to town on behalf of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which he now heads, to make clear that Minnesota is on a shortlist of targeted states. Among the reforms his group is proposing is one familiar to the Star Tribune Editorial Board: Take redistricting out of the hands of politicians and entrust it to independent commissions. California and Arizona have them. In Michigan this fall, voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that would do just that. That state’s commission would be divided among four Democrats, four Republicans and five members not affiliated with either party. It would be prohibited from giving a “disproportionate advantage” to any single political party and would have to use “accepted measures of partisan fairness.”
Minnesota is not the worst of the offenders, but one only has to look at recent history to see that this is a system in need of overhaul. Minnesotans have tended to send divided government to St. Paul. Come redistricting time, the two sides seldom agree. For decades, their competing plans have landed in court, with judges making the final decision. One could argue that this has unwittingly provided an illustration of the value of having an independent panel do the mapmaking. In Minnesota’s case, the independent panels have been three-judge panels, chosen to include bipartisan pedigrees. The result has been keener competition for control of the Legislature — irritating to partisans of both kinds, but a fairly accurate reflection of the electorate.
George Beck, head of the nonpartisan Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections, recently pointed out that the model for this already exists: the independent commission that now determines legislative salaries, which passed as a constitutional amendment in 2016 supported by 76 percent of votes cast. In 2011, before the last redistricting, political figures as disparate as former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale, former Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum and former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz advocated for a panel of retired judges to take on the boundary-drawing.
There are those who will argue that elected officials, answerable to the public, should have responsibility. But too often, where a single party governs, that power has been misused. Where government has been divided, judges who may or may not have expertise in that area may make the final call.
It’s time to acknowledge the flaws in this system and adopt a different path well in advance of 2020 elections. Minnesotans would be wise to consider that government may not always be divided in this state, and that an independent commission could prove a valuable safeguard against mapmaking mischief.