Opinion and Statehouse Dispatch and Redistricting

FEIGENBAUM: New legislative maps matter over the long term

April 16, 2011

While there has been the requisite amount of legislative action of late, as the attenuated session draws closer to its natural conclusion, few lawmakers or other participants in the process would be honest if they told you they have been paying full attention to the regular developments—and it hasn’t been a thrilling Indiana Pacers playoff drive distracting them.

Rather, one eye was being directed toward the draft legislative maps released April 11 by majority Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives. The proposed district lines—which are expected to undergo only minimal fine-tuning before their passage—were immediately followed by inter-party bickering about districts being drawn illegally, in an overtly partisan manner, or violating precepts about preserving communities of interest.

But no set of lines can offer such perfection. Even if prepared by an independent entity, population and geographic boundaries force certain choices, and there inevitably will be arguments over whether a given city or county should be included in one district instead of another, or if having more than one legislator per city or county increases or dilutes representation.

For example, the proposed new 9th Congressional District is much more geographically compact than its predecessor, running longitudinal from Marion County’s southern edge to Kentucky’s Ohio River border at Clark and Floyd counties. The current district has run along the Ohio River from near Cincinnati almost to Evansville. Some would argue that Greenwood has nothing in common with New Albany or Jeffersonville, but others see all those communities as similar suburbs of dynamic regional economic leaders.

Why should you care about redistricting?

Because, barring major national influences on Hoosier elections (think 1974, 1994 and 2010, for example), emergence of a singular political star who transcends party (think along the lines of former Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh), or personal or political scandal (think former Republican U.S. Rep. Joel Deckard), these district lines largely will guide the partisan composition of the Indiana House of Representatives and the delegation we send to Congress for the next decade.

The Indiana Senate has been in the control of the Republican Party for well over a full generation now, and the new maps will do nothing to change that. Even beyond changing demographic and voting patterns, carefully crafted maps have ensured that Senate districts that might be marginally favorable to Democrats are susceptible to being won by Republicans. No Democrat has defeated an incumbent Republican senator since 1998 (when a former senator avenged his Senate-decided defeat after a recount four years earlier). Not since the mid-1980s has a Democrat without legislative experience defeated a GOP Senate incumbent.

The House, of course, has become much more competitive over the years. Republicans had a stranglehold on the House in the 1980s, until the task of trying to keep too many marginal seats in GOP hands met the Bayh gubernatorial juggernaut, bringing Democrats to parity. Democrats managed to control redistricting in 1991 and 2001, allowing them to win a majority of seats, while receiving statewide vote percentages suggesting they should have won far fewer seats.

This time out of the blocks, House Republicans—still smarting from the mid-session House Democratic exodus to Illinois, and envious of the quorum-proof majority enjoyed by their colleagues across the rotunda in the Senate—want to increase their majority to the two-thirds status that would enable them to conduct business even without Democrats.

They have created four districts that will see a Democrat and Republican incumbent face off against each other if they want to return to the General Assembly. Several Democrats also are cast together in the same districts (and three previously electorally safe lawmakers from Indianapolis find themselves in one district). In so doing, they also forced some of their own Republican colleagues to run against one another to remain in the House.

Still, Democrats scoff that some of those individuals were retirement-ready, or that this simply allows Republicans to strengthen remaining marginally GOP-leaning districts. Democrats also understand that their chances are only minimal for recapturing the lost seats from among the eight House districts drawn without an incumbent living in them.

As you can discern, this exercise in map-making is creative cartography, a black art rather than a pure science. And the fight over the lines is fierce because it affects not only individual political careers, but the fate of a political party’s policy agenda.

One theme clearly driven home throughout the first two months of the 2011 legislative session and House Democratic walkout was that elections clearly do have consequences. Current redistricting rhetoric and protests over how lines are drawn is more than the usual political posturing on issues. This process occurs only decennially, and its impact is difficult for the party on the short end to overcome.

Yes, this is pure politics, but politics with clear and direct policy consequences.•

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Feigenbaum publishes Indiana Legislative Insight. His column appears weekly while the Indiana General Assembly is in session. He can be reached at edf@ingrouponline.com.

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