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BOEHM: A committee with great potential should persevere

November 7, 2015

Boehm
Last spring, the General Assembly created a Redistricting Study Committee to study the laws governing the redistricting process, the methods used in other states, and the experience with them. After consulting with experts, the committee is to issue a report, including an evaluation of the pros and cons of the various options.

The committee is composed of four senators, four representatives and four lay members. Six of the 12 were appointed by Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and six by the minority leaders of the two houses. I am one of the lay members. The committee chairman is Rep. Jerry Torr and vice chairman is Sen. Brandt Hershman.

It is easy enough to identify the results of leaving the districting to the Legislature with no restraints beyond Indiana law. Gerrymandering boils down to creating a majority of districts that heavily favor one party. Critics complain that this not only gives the dominant party more seats than its support at the polls warrants, but it also elects few independents or moderates from either party and produces an unrepresentative legislative body. The injury is to individual voters as well, because the primary election becomes the only meaningful step in the process and denies a vote to independents.

At least the last four decennial redraws in Indiana have produced a preponderance of districts dominated by a single party. Indeed, many seats are uncontested in the general election. It seems obvious that changing this result will require giving the map-drawing function to some other agency or imposing effective restraints on the Legislature’s discretion to manipulate the district lines. It is far less obvious what should be done about this.

The law creating the commission directs it to research experience in other states and consult with experts. At this point, little of either has occurred. It was clear from the commission’s first meeting, largely introductory, that there is a wide range of opinion among the members as to the need for any change, and the nature of any desired reform. The experience in other states has largely remained unexplored. The risk that failure to act will result in court invalidation of the current districts needs to be evaluated.

The design of any voluntary change will remain with the General Assembly. That is the likely result even if a court finds the current or any future districting map unconstitutional. I hope that, until the commission has completed the review the statute requires, all members will keep an open mind on whether change is needed and, if so, in what form. A unanimous report might be unattainable, but if the committee is to come up with a product that has credibility with the General Assembly, it will have to achieve some significant degree of agreement at least on some principles.

Under the Indiana Constitution, the next redistricting is required in the year following the federal census—2021. Most observers believe any change that would take the drawing of maps out of the hands of the General Assembly would require an amendment to the state Constitution, a process that requires approval of two successive legislatures, then submission to the voters at the following general election.

The committee is to issue its report before Dnec. 1, 2016, presumably to give the new General Assembly to be elected in 2016 the opportunity to consider any changes in Indiana’s districting process and, if so, to submit them to the General Assembly elected in 2018 and the voters in 2020, in time to be effective for the 2022 elections.•

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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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