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EDITORIAL: De-politicize map making

But redistricting talk can’t stop there

October 1, 2016

A group of Indiana lawmakers this summer took on a worthy cause: Trying to de-politicize the state’s method of drawing the lines for congressional and legislative district maps. It’s an issue that’s been bubbling in Indiana for years—sometimes pushed by Republicans, sometimes by Democrats and always by good-government types like Common Cause.

But the talk has recently become more serious. A Special Interim Study Committee on Redistricting is wrapping up two years of work on the issue and appears set to recommend that Indiana join a growing list of states that are turning the map-making over to an independent commission.

Dan Carden, a reporter at The (Northwest Indiana) Times, has been following the commission’s work and reported Sept. 20 that the committee has “seemed to move definitively past the question of whether a redistricting commission is needed and began to haggle about how the commission should work.”

That’s important. It’s easy to embrace the idea of an independent commission. But there are plenty of questions about the way such a body would work—and where its priorities would lay in crafting districts. No debate about redistricting is complete without tackling those thorny issues.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that the use of independent commissions is permitted under the U.S. Constitution. However, the Indiana Constitution requires that every 10 years, lawmakers set the number of House and Senate members and “apportion them among districts” according to number of people counted in the federal census.

Essentially, the state constitution requires lawmakers to approve the maps. That means an independent commission would still have to submit its work to state lawmakers for final approval—or Hoosiers would have to amend the constitution.

There’s also the question of who would serve on a commission, which would almost certainly be bi-partisan, not non-partisan. Some legislators support having legislative leaders appoint four members and having those appointees pick a fifth and final member. Common Cause has proposed a nine-member commission with at least three non-partisan members—but who determines who qualifies as non-partisan?

Whoever serves on the commission will need clear goals. Federal law requires that districts be as close as possible to equal in population and must not deny minorities the right to an effective vote.

But advocates of redistricting reform promote a number of other goals. They seek districts that are compact, keep so-called communities of interest together and result in competitive elections. Again, it’s hard to argue with any of those objectives—but they can be quite difficult to achieve.

We don’t mean to be unenthusiastic about legislative attempts to de-politicize the redistricting process. The goal is worthy and the study committee’s work is admirable.

But the solutions shouldn’t be oversimplified. The outcome is too important.

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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