BOEHM: New districts further polarize Legislature

August 6, 2011

Ted BoehmIn my first column in this series, I outlined what I see as the serious obstacles gerrymandered legislative districts create for the smooth operation of our state and federal governments. A second column argued that legislators have an inherent conflict of interest that makes it unrealistic to expect a neutral plan to emerge from the Legislature itself.

We now have the maps the 2011 Indiana General Assembly adopted for the Indiana Senate and House districts. I offer them as Exhibits A and B in support of my claim that the best way to address this issue is to remove the General Assembly from the process and leave it up to a bipartisan commission.

When the 2011 redistricting was unveiled, several neutral commentators praised the increased adherence to established political lines such as county and city boundaries and the more regular shapes of the new districts.

The new plans do, indeed, reflect an improvement in these respects over the 2001 redistricting. But they wholly fail to address the fundamental problem that gerrymandered districts contribute to a polarized Legislature. Indeed, they exacerbate it.

One way to identify a district that is generally considered “safe” for one party is its candidates’ receiving 55 percent of the vote in recent general elections. By that measure, the 2001 House map created 42 safe Republican districts and 38 safe for the Democrats. The 2011 House map raised the Republican total of safe districts to 49 and reduced the Democrats to 31.

Only 20 are competitive, and several of those are barely so. The result is that the Democrats must win all 20 of the competitive districts, including several leaning strongly Republican, to gain a bare 51-49 majority in the Indiana House.

My point is not that it is a good thing or a bad thing that either party control one or both houses. The point is that these maps are as severely gerrymandered as their predecessors, and adherence to some stated goals of neutral districting does not come close to achieving a fair plan.

The 2011 maps violate some basic principles one would expect to dominate any neutral effort to produce fair and unbiased districting.

Our Legislature is composed of 100 representatives in the House and 50 senators. Most would agree that neutral districting should respect natural communities of interest, whether arising from the boundaries of local government or from the varied predominant interests of the people who live in different areas of the state. These interests, though different for different parts of the state, are the same in electing senators and representatives alike.

Any plan that attempted to reflect that principle would produce a “nested” map, in which each Senate district is composed of two House districts. Nesting also helps voters understand where their district is, but an overlay of the Senate and House maps reveals complete disregard of these considerations.

The 2011 plans do nothing to dispel the partisanship that has pervaded the Legislature in recent years. These maps demonstrate that a Legislature will produce what you might expect it to produce: districting serving the perceived interest of a majority of its members.

But when it comes to the composition of the Legislature, the interest of individual members is directly contrary to the interest of the public at large. If we leave districting in the hands of the General Assembly, we may accidentally from time to time get Legislatures that are composed of a reasonable number of centrists and compromisers, but for the most part, we will end up with maps like those adopted by the 2011 General Assembly, in which the vast majority of districts are dominated by one party or the other and the primary elections are the only significant event.

Where voters of one party are the only voters who count in selecting the winning candidates, we will continue to have too many partisans and too few moderates.

A bipartisan commission has worked well in other states and should be put in charge of districting here.•


Boehm is a retired Indiana Supreme Court justice who previously held senior corporate legal positions and helped launch amateur sports initiatives in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


Recent Articles by Ted Boehm / Special to IBJ

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