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EDITORIAL: Governor should take lead on redistricting

January 12, 2018

Indiana checks a lot of the right boxes for business growth. Our central location, affordability, transportation network and regulatory environment are big draws.

But there’s another Indiana that holds the state back—the Indiana of lopsided legislative districts, low voter turnout and easily elected officials who value purity over progress.

We’d like to see Gov. Eric Holcomb become a champion for fixing our broken politics by diving into the redistricting fray, something he seems so far reluctant to do.

The General Assembly will consider three bills, filed by members of both parties, two of which would create bipartisan commissions to redraw Indiana congressional and legislative districts. A commission would replace the current system, in which the party in power uses sophisticated data to draw districts that create safe seats for their party. Politicians essentially choose their voters rather than voters choosing them.

That’s not the way a democracy is supposed to work, and voters know it. They packed the Statehouse last year to voice their support for fairly drawn districts, only to have Senate Elections Chairman Milo Smith spike the bill. Voter interest in this bedrock issue shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. Sure, it’s politically messy and technically complicated, but it’s important work that the governor should make a priority.

In the last mid-term election, in 2014, voter turnout in Indiana was below 30 percent, ranking the state last among the 50 states. There’s no excuse for not voting, but neither is there much incentive to vote in legislative races where there’s really no contest. In 2016, 11 of 25 state Senate races were either uncontested or lacked two major-party candidates. This happened in 32 of 100 House races. These districts are among the many in Indiana that are so partisan, the only real contest is in the primary, where politicians with extreme views often prevail.

Our broken system elects representatives like Curt Nisly, a Goshen Republican, who has filed a bill to outlaw abortion, a position clearly counter to federal law. Nisly’s bombshell is already pitting Republicans against Republicans and threatening to divert time from nuts-and-bolts issues.

There’s not much hope for the abortion bill, but damaging legislation sometimes becomes law. The so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2015 painted Indiana in an unflattering light nationwide, causing an uproar in the business community and forcing House and Senate leadership into triage mode.

A state that counts talent retention and attraction among its biggest challenges can’t afford such brand-damaging distractions. And it can’t afford to ignore the long-term consequences of a system that invites voter apathy.

Fairly drawn legislative districts won’t guarantee competitive races. Nor would they rid the Statehouse of bad bills. But at the very least, they would restore credibility to our elections, our best hope for attracting quality candidates.

We applaud Holcomb for his focus on economic development and workforce training. Both would be easier in the long run if he’d take the lead on redistricting, too.•

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

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