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BOEHM: Council redistricting fight is wasteful

December 10, 2011

Ted BoehmIt’s time for redistricting games again, and time for both sides to call timeout. By the time you read this, there may have been developments in the redistricting of the City-County Council districts, but so far the indications are we are headed for a wasteful and ultimately fruitless battle over a matter that can and should be easily and fairly resolved.

Indianapolis elects its mayor and council for four-year terms. As a result of the 2011 election, on Jan. 1 Democrats will take majority control of the council from Republicans. Before the election, the Republican leader of the council proposed to use public funds to hire a Republican activist to redraw the council district lines. It’s hard to believe this was anything more than a naked attempt to secure Republican control of the council by redrawing the districts to create a majority of safe Republican districts.

The newly elected Democrats responded with a threat to repeal any redrawn map as soon as they take office. If the Democrats overreach, Mayor Ballard, a Republican, retains the right to veto any map the new majority of the council may adopt.

We’ve been here before. Following the 2000 census, council members of both parties proposed highly partisan maps, and the Republican majority approved its version. Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson’s veto left the county with no validly enacted map. The Unigov law provided for this deadlock to be broken by decision of all the judges of the Marion Superior Court.

To no surprise, given that Marion County judges are selected by the political parties, the judges split along party lines, and the case was appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court.

A unanimous Supreme Court turned the matter over to its administrative staff with instructions to ignore political consequences and draw districts of basically equal population; honor natural dividing lines such as township lines, rivers and major highways; and make the districts as compact and regular in shape as feasible. The staff was provided with commercially available software and population data and geographic information, but no election results and no addresses of incumbents.

It took the staff only a few hours to produce a map that had several districts that seemed safe for one party or the other, but also several that were competitive. Because some areas have large concentrations of voters of one party, that’s what we should get. The result of neutral redistricting is a body better reflecting the population as a whole, with some strong partisans on each side and some who are closer to the centrist views often disenfranchised by a gerrymandered map.

Most neutral observers applauded the court’s map. Judge for yourself. The court’s 2003 map and those proposed by the two parties are available at the end of the Court’s opinion at http://www.in.gov/judiciary/opinions/pvb/PetersonBorstOpFinal.pdf.

The attempt a decade later to reintroduce partisan map-making is a step in the wrong direction and a waste of valuable time, resources and legislative energy. If the Republicans draw a partisan map in the waning hours of their majority, the Democrats will redraw it in a month. If the Democrats respond in kind, Ballard can veto it. Back we go to the courts.

The Marion Superior Court is now equally divided between the parties and might adopt a neutral plan, but if not, the Supreme Court will presumably produce the same result it did before.

Because the current map is a fair one, the simplest, fairest and easiest way to redistrict is to make the minimum changes required by population changes since 2000 and new precinct lines required by state law. This process produces the least confusion, and helps voters to know their council representatives. It also preserves the basic principles of fair redistricting embodied in the court’s 2003 plan.

This can be done by the council itself. If members of both parties concede that there is ultimately no edge to be gained in this game, we will avoid the delay and expense of dueling maps and there will be no need to involve the courts in this legislative process.•

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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.

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