The people who come to the State Capitol seeking to save representative democracy from undemocratic perversions are a tenacious bunch. That’s to their credit. They’ll need persistence and more to prevail in their quest to avert a looming threat — partisan gerrymandering of this state’s legislative and congressional maps.
Looming? you ask. When the 2020 census hasn’t started counting, and the drawing of new maps to equalize district populations is a job constitutionally assigned to the 2021-22 Legislature, not the current one?
Yes, looming, I say — and so do the dozen or so prodemocracy organizations that together are asking the 2019-20 Legislature to give an independent commission a leading role in the next decennial redistricting. That’s what 13 states do in a variety of fashions. It’s what a bipartisan panel of Minnesota elder statesmen, including one former Democratic vice president and two former Republican governors, recommended in 2008.
Wait until 2021 to push that change, the reformers argue, and the temptation for the party then in charge to hang on to the power to draw advantageous districts will be too great to overcome.
Make that temptation plus opportunity. Even in a state so politically purple that it has elected a divided state government in 14 of the past 15 elections and is home to the nation’s only divided legislature this year, chances are uncommonly high that that one party will run the whole statehouse show in 2021.
Consider: The DFL grip on the governorship is now assured through 2022. DFLers control the state House by a 16-seat margin and are within striking distance of a Senate power switch in 2020. Republicans have a precarious 34-32 Senate majority, with one seat up for grabs in a Feb. 5 special election.
More’s the point: 2020 will be a presidential year, ensuring the high turnout that has historically helped DFLers in this state. And the Republican standard-bearer appears likely to be a fellow whose approval rating fell to 34 percent in one national poll last week, and who was blamed by 3 out of 5 respondents in another poll for this year’s federal government shutdown.
Political winds can shift quickly, of course. Only two years ago, the same would-be redistricting reformers were coming to the Capitol in numbers I considered surprising to block a preemptive move by Republican majorities to keep redistricting out of any hands but the Legislature’s own. Republicans then were plausibly predicting that they would be able to run the boards in 2021.
That GOP attempt went nowhere — and this year, it’s DFL legislators’ thinking about redistricting that’s rattling reformers.
At a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce dinner on Jan. 9, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, was noncommittal about redistricting, the Star Tribune’s Morning Hot Dish newsletter reported the next day. “More time is needed,” she said that night.
It’s already too late to impanel a commission for 2021 of the sort that the advocates seek, she elaborated last week. It would require a lengthy process to select 13 members (the latest plan calls for five retired judges and eight citizens), hire staff, amass the considerable technical resources required and plan for the inevitable lawsuits this work generates, she said.
But that concern is predicated on Hortman’s preference for a 2020 constitutional amendment that would give a commission full authority to draw new district lines. That isn’t the approach promoted by a new advocacy coalition spearheaded by Common Cause Minnesota. Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, Common Cause’s energetic state director, says she and her allies favor a change that would not require a constitutional amendment. It would create an advisory commission to do the nitty-gritty of mapmaking and allow the Legislature to retain yes-or-no say on the final product.
To that proposal, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has a rejoinder: Unless the commission has full authority to act, why bother?
Bakk has spent a quarter-century in the Legislature. He understands power and isn’t abashed about his desire to use it. He told the chamber audience that his opportunity to draw district lines “is what’s going to make me run again in ’20.”
Specifically, Bakk said later, he wants a hand in drawing districts in his native northeastern Minnesota, in hopes of maximizing the region’s clout in St. Paul. “I want to make sure somebody’s looking out for rural Minnesota,” he said.
That’s not an ignoble intention. But it’s not in keeping with the DFL Party’s platform. It calls for “establishment of a nonpartisan independent redistricting commission, representative of Minnesota’s diversity, partisan balance, and geography, for all future redistricting.” (Bakk allows that this would not be the first time his views and the state party platform were not in sync. But we’ll save the gun issue for another day.)
That state platform provision is in keeping with Democratic Party efforts nationally to be seen as the fair-elections party, and to cast Brand X as democracy manipulators. That could be a potent brand in 2020 — provided DFLers don’t undercut it by tripping up a serious push to prevent gerrymandering.
Belladonna-Carrera said her coalition’s leaders are reaching out now to some of the same Republican legislators who were hostile to a commission idea two years ago. They may see the situation differently today, she allowed.
“This isn’t a question of ideology,” she said. “What we are talking about here is power and in whose interest you exercise it as an elected official. You have a responsibility to do what’s right for your constituents, not for your party or your own self-interest in getting re-elected.”
Fairly drawn districts are fundamental to state government’s legitimacy and effectiveness, both of which could use some shoring up right now. They decide whose voices are heard and whose concerns are addressed in the halls of government.
Minnesota has been lucky in previous redistrictings in the modern era. Recurring partisan divisions in the legislative and executive branches have sent redistricting to the courts in every decade but one since the 1960s. The result is that gerrymandering has mostly been some other states’ problem.
But divided state government isn’t guaranteed to this state forever. Neither is representative democracy.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and an occasional columnist. She is at email@example.com.