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Last-Minute Redistricting Reform Unlikely As Advocates Continue Push

Statehouse at sunset

(Justin Hicks/IPB News)

The General Assembly is back in session, which means Julia Vaughn is back to making her weekly trips to the statehouse. 

“Usually at least two, three times a week,” Vaugh says, standing on the building’s airy third floor. “The General Assembly typically works Monday through Thursday, so it's definitely a full time job.”

Usually, she’s in the basement pushing redistricting reform for the nonprofit Common Cause Indiana, where she’s been lobbying for the last 26 years.  

2021 will be the third round of redistricting Vaughn has been a part of, and she says it’s something people are paying more attention to now than ever before.

“It is so different, just the public recognition of the importance of redistricting and how much it impacts elections, that has changed dramatically over the last 10 years.”

Republicans were in control when the state completed redistricting back in 2011. By 2012, they secured a supermajority in both the House and Senate and haven't looked back since.

“I think it's safe to say that Republicans – intentionally or not – when they drew the district boundaries, drew them in a way that was particularly beneficial to the Republican Party,” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. “We see that in the fact that they not only have been able to get to the super majority, but keep it and even expand it to some degree.”

READ MORE: Republicans Expand Supermajority In Indiana House, Only Lose One Seat In Senate

After Census data are collected each decade, the Constitution requires states draw new electoral boundaries for U.S. Congressional and state legislative districts.

Fourteen states give redistricting commissions primary control over drawing lines. In Indiana, the state legislature’s in charge.

“Indiana is probably one of the [states that] has fewest restrictions, either culturally or legally in what can be done when they're drawing the lines,” said Gerald Wright, IU professor of political science.

Julia Vaughn redistricting rally 2017
Vaughn speaks during a 2017 redistricting reform rally outside the statehouse. (WTIU/WFIU News)

Redistricting reform advocates like Vaughn say when Republicans run statewide, support often hovers in the mid-50s but partisan redistricting, or gerrymandering, allows them to keep the legislature around 70 percent Republican. They say that means many votes in solidly blue or red districts “don’t matter” and the GOP’s commanding supermajority allows them to avoid any real Democratic priorities.

Politicans do so through “packing” and “cracking” – either packing opposing voters into a district so the opposition wins by overwhelming margins or “cracking” up pockets of opposing voters so the party in power wins easily. 

“It's been a high sport in Indiana, even when the Democrats drew the lines way back when – it's been an open sport,” Wright said. “Given the chance to draw lines, the majority party, when they're in power like they clearly are in Indiana, will draw the lines to their advantage.”

Vaughn isn’t the only one who feels partisan gerrymandering allows legislators to pick their constituents, not the other way around. So Common Cause and 24 other voter advocacy groups are creating a multi-partisan Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission. It won’t have any real power, but allows the public to give input and make third-party maps to compare with the legislature’s.

“Our idea is to make this an open process, transparent, and really have a public process for redistricting so that the districts are drawn with the public interest driving instead of partisan political interests,” Vaughn said.

Republican leadership has been hesitant to embrace such a strategy, saying a truly nonpartisan commission is next to impossible, and is even less keen on a fully independent redistricting commission.

READ MORE: Republican Legislative Leaders Cast Doubt On Shadow Redistricting Commission

“We're going to make sure that we have lots of public hearings and lots of public input about communities of interest that are across the state so that we are careful about where we draw our lines and not divide those communities of interest,” said Rod Bray (R-Martinsville), president pro tempore of the state senate.

“It's understandable,” Wright said. “The politician doesn't want to say, ‘Well, I'm just going to give that power up and then hope it comes out ok for me.’ No, [they’ll say,] ‘Look, I'm gonna stick here with my buddies; we’ll draw the lines to make sure it comes out the right way.’”

But the Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that partisan redistricting is an issue beyond the reach of the courts – when it boils down to it, it’s politics, and the states themselves would have to enact restrictions.

“If it was a Democrat in charge, there might be some different maps gerrymandered for Democrats but that doesn't make it right to do it,” said state Sen. Greg Taylor (D-Indianapolis). “Just because I can do something doesn't mean you should do something, especially when it's bad.”

Ft. Wayne state senate districts, 2000-2010
Current state senate districts for Allen County. "You could go less than 20 miles (horizontally) across Fort Wayne and be represented by three different senators," Sen. Taylor said. (Allen County government)

As activists like Vaughn advocate for third-party approaches, Taylor, the senate minority leader, plans to try once again to get a reform bill passed before redistricting occurs at the end of the session.

He says it’s especially important this year because the process will likely be rushed – Census information won’t be available until the end of March, just a month before the session ends.

“That is pretty general nature but gives some standards that we should have when it comes to redistricting,” Taylor said. “It does not include a commission, it's too late to put that together. Now we’re operating from a standpoint of, ‘We have to have at least some standards put in place for redistricting.’”

Restrictions would include things like keeping districts compact, not dividing cities and counties between districts, keeping school corporation boundaries and communities of interest together and allowing for public input in the process. But Bray says he doesn’t expect them to pass.

“There are reasons if we don't do our job well that the court could throw some of those things out. So those requirements are already in place through case law, and we're certainly going to adhere to them,” he said.

If reforms aren’t possible in 2021, advocates hope the citizen’s commission will provide Hoosiers with a look at how a redistricting commission could work before the legislature takes another crack 10 years from now.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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