Activists push for fair legislative district boundaries

By Adrianna Pitrelli
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Holding campaign flyers from the 2016 election, Bill Kline walked his Sheridan neighborhood, shaking his head, asking himself when he will be fairly represented in state and federal government.

“It’s corrupted — the way they draw these lines isn’t an accurate representation of the people who actually live in the area,” Kline said of the political district lines. “They [politicians] wonder why we don’t trust them, it’s because we don’t pick them.”

Kline is one of thousands of Hoosiers who are upset with the way state and congressional districts have been drawn to tilt the balance of power to favor one political party over another, a process known as gerrymandering.

Hoosiers hold signs in support of getting rid of gerrymandering in Indiana. They argue gerrymandering is unfair because it doesn’t give both sides of the aisle a chance to be fairly and accurately represented. Photo by Adrianna Pitrelli, TheStatehouseFile.com

That’s why he is among those who want state lawmakers to act in 2018 and create a nonpartisan commission to draw district lines.

Two state Senate Republicans,  John Ruckelshaus, of Indianapolis, and Mike Bohacek, of Michiana Shores, have introduced a bill to create a nonpartisan commission to draw legislative district boundaries.

Those boundaries must be redrawn every 10 years following the census, a task that generally falls to state legislatures. The only requirements are that all districts must be nearly equal in population and adhere to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits discrimination based on race.

Lawmakers typically draw district lines to favor their own party, but critics say it was taken to a new level after 2010 when Republicans swept state legislatures across the country.

Indiana’s legislative districts at both the state and federal levels are among the most gerrymandered in the country, according to a 2014 study by the Social Science Research Network. 

In the 2016 election in Indiana, Democratic House candidates received 40 percent of total votes cast compared to 60 percent for Republicans, and in the governor’s race, Eric Holcomb beat Democrat John Gregg 51 to 45 percent.

But in the legislature, Republicans hold a supermajority in both chambers, controlling the House 70-30 and the Senate 41-9.

In the November 2016 election, 24 of 100 House seats had no opposition — showing just a handful of seats were competitive.

Technology has enabled lines to be drawn down to individual households, which has created what academics have called an efficiency gap.

The efficiency gap measures the “wasted” votes within a party and larger gaps signal that the maps might be less than fair. For example, a district that has a single party winning by wide margins — like 60 percent or more of the vote — has a lot of “wasted” votes because a simple majority is what is needed to win.

“They use the efficiency gap to look at a bunch of people who would probably vote for the other party and put them in a district that would have a lot of wasted votes,” said Kathryn Stipes, of Martinsville. “They put a lot of time and effort into this process, and it baffles me that it’s legal.”

Julia Vaughn, right, talks to rally goers in October about why gerrymandering hurts Americans. She says gerrymandering is fundamentally unfair. Photo by Adrianna Pitrelli, TheStatehouseFile.com

Stipes is a Democrat in a Republican stronghold and is among those urging lawmakers to reform Indiana’s redistricting process.

The efficiency gap measurement was originally developed by Nicholas Stephanopoulos, law professor at the University of Chicago, and Eric McGhee, a political scientist at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute in California.

The consequence of lop-sided legislative districts is that candidates from the fringes of the party have a bigger voice, they say in their research.

“Competitive races force the winning candidate to adopt more moderate, centrist positions, while a landslide may allow that candidate to move further from the center,” Stephanopoulos said.

For Kline, who lives in Hamilton County, this means the concerns of him and his neighbors are ignored. His county has a median income of nearly $85,000 a year. Most people who live in Sheridan, however, aren’t wealthy. The 2016 median income in the town is less than half of that — less than $40,000 per year.

Making ends meet for some Hamilton County residents isn’t as easy as it is for others, Kline said, and therefore he’d like to see a more accurate representation at the Statehouse and on Capitol Hill.

“The people who represent my area, they’re wealthy, they come from wealthy backgrounds and they only focus on those who are wealthy,” Kline said. “But there are other people in the county and district and they have different needs.”

To confront gerrymandering, some states have established nonpartisan commissions to draw the lines — a step Indiana tried to make during the 2017 legislative session. House Bill 1013, which would have created a similar to panel to those implemented in other states, never made it out of the House committee. Chairman Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, did not call the bill for a vote, saying he thought it was an unfinished product.

An example of how the efficiency gap is calculated. Photo from the University of Chicago Law School.

It’s an effort Kline supports and said he will fight for in the upcoming legislative session.

“We need a people-led process because the people are the ones affected daily,” Kline said. “People should pick their representatives. The representatives shouldn’t pick us.”

Since the end of the last legislative session, Julia Vaughn has spent countless hours campaigning and rallying for redistricting reform. Vaughn, policy director at Common Cause Indiana, agrees with setting up a new panel to decide how the districts are drawn.

“Gerrymandering is a prime cause for low civic participation and redistricting reform is one of the top policy priorities,” Vaughn said. “Voters are not being illogical when they fail to vote because the contests have already been decided.”

Vaughn said voters should have choices but unfortunately have just a few. If a race was more hotly contested, she said, there would be more community engagement and voters would have more say in the election process.

“Legislation is the only way gerrymandering will be fixed, and it’ll only be passed if tens of thousands of Hoosiers stand up and demand it,” Vaughn said. “We want to make it one of the biggest issues in the 2018 session.”

Vaughn argued gerrymandering doesn’t give both sides of the aisle a chance to be fairly and accurately represented.

“Democracy is at stake,” she said. “The future of our country, the partisan divide that we see, it’s so prevalent and in state legislatures across the country and can be traced back to gerrymandering districts.”

Gerrymandering isn’t just an Indiana issue. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case from Wisconsin, Gill v. Whitford.

The case challenges the way Wisconsin’s legislative districts were redrawn following the last census. In 2012, Republicans, who had control Wisconsin’s legislature and governor’s office, crafted the district boundary lines to favor GOP candidates and ensure the party would hold onto its political power.

More than 200 Hoosiers rallied outside the Indiana Federal Courthouse in October on the day of the hearing of U.S. Supreme Court Case Gill v. Whitford. It will decide whether partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution. Photo by Adrianna Pitrelli, TheStatehouseFile.com

“Wisconsin voters do not blindly support one party or the other, the brief contends,” Stephanopoulos said. “Rather, they often split their tickets, or change their allegiances from one election to the next, based on issues that matter to the electorate and the quality of the candidates and their campaigns.”

He said legislators are highly responsive to their constituents’ preferences.

“October’s case happening in Wisconsin can hopefully show lawmakers in Indiana that party-based gerrymandering is not permitted by the Constitution,” Stipes said.

Kelly Bowman, now 51, has been a Republican since age 15 and to this day, she lives in a Republican-controlled area of the state.  She, too, is fed up with gerrymandering.

“Nothing will ever get accomplished if we have a super majority,” Bowman said. “If one side isn’t fairy represented, we won’t be given a good outcome because not all voices are being heard.”

Bowman and Stipes have been friends for many years and agree that each of their perspectives should be represented in the political process.

“Kathryn has been a Democrat since I can remember, but I also can’t remember a time where I felt like she and I both fairly and accurately had our voices heard,” Bowman said. “I look forward to elections, they’re competitive for me. But for Kathryn, she hates it because she never has anyone she actually wants to vote for.”

Writing letters the their politicians and going to rallies are ways the friends hope to persuade lawmakers to create an independent board to create the redistricting lines. Until then, Bowman said, she encourages others to fight.

“I know thousands and thousands of people on both sides have to be mad about this,” Bowman said. “So if we want to make a difference, we have to take action. Call, email, write your lawmakers. Show up at rallies. Post about it on Facebook. Getting the word out there in any way will help.”

Adrianna Pitrelli is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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