GOP leaders urge new method of drawing legislative district lines (copy)


INDIANAPOLIS — The last time lawmakers raised the issue of changing the state constitution, they set off a volatile debate about whether same-sex couples had the right to marry. The emotionally charged conversation overshadowed much of last year’s work.

This year, lawmakers are again talking about changing the Indiana Constitution. But on a public interest level, it may be a snoozer — despite its potential effect.

The proposal alters the constitution to remove the General Assembly’s power to decide how state and federal legislative districts are drawn every 10 years. Instead it clears the way for an independent commission to draw those maps.

Similar efforts are underway elsewhere in varied forms, but the impetus is the same — take the partisanship out of a process that favors incumbents and the party in power.

The idea has long been championed by the public watchdog group Common Cause Indiana and its tenacious policy director, Julia Vaughn.

She reasons that the current system, which uses sophisticated computerized mapping to track the leanings of voters, amounts to politicians choosing voters instead of the other way around.

“It’s the ultimate conflict of interest for politicians to draw their own districts,” she says.

Her allies in the cause may seem surprising. They’re the Republican leaders with super-majorities in both chambers — House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President David Long.

Long has started the process to change the part of the constitution that mandates the General Assembly “fix by law the number of Senators and Representatives and apportion them among districts according to the number of inhabitants in each district, as revealed by that federal decennial census.”

It’s a lengthy process, requiring consecutive votes in separate sessions of the legislature before going to voters, most likely in 2018.

Meanwhile, Bosma wants his colleagues to undertake a two-year study of how other states have moved toward independent redistricting.

“I don’t know if the average citizen loses sleep at night over the composition of legislative districts,” he said.

“It’s pretty much an inside-the-limestone issue for most folks,” he said, making reference to the Statehouse.

So why do it — especially since changing the system means Republicans, should they hold onto their majorities, will lose some of their ability to shape districts to their liking?

Long and Bosma said it’s about bolstering confidence and participation in the elections.

Last November, only 30 percent of Indiana’s 4.5 million registered voters bothered to cast ballots.

For some, there wasn’t much reason: In 44 state House races, the incumbent went uncontested.

The agonizingly long process of getting to an independent commission will take heat from the debate. But there may be opponents. Sen. Brandt Hershman (Buck Creek), the Republican majority leader in the Senate, has been openly scornful of the push for independent redistricting, calling it one of the most overblown issues in Indiana politics.

Overblown or not, it could be messy. Other states have struggled to figure out what an “independent” commission looks like. Appointments to such commissions can still be political.

In California, the independent commission created by voters in 2008 has taken heat for maps that Republicans say favor Democrats. Latino groups, meanwhile, feared newly drawn districts would dilute their voting power.

Arizona’s redistricting commission – now the focus of a federal court challenge – came under fire when it was revealed that its mapmaking consultant had ties to President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

All of which explains why Long and Bosma are pushing this issue now — six years before the next redistricting.

“It’s time to take a hard look at how other states are doing this, their successes and failures,” Long said. “If we’re going to seriously look at how we redraw our districts in 2021, we have to get to work on it now.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers. Send comments to [email protected].