By Lesley Weidenbener
Lesley Weidenbener, executive editor, TheStatehouseFile.com
INDIANAPOLIS – The U.S. Supreme Court has cleared the way for states to use independent redistricting commissions to draw maps for legislative districts.
That’s particularly timely in Indiana, where lawmakers are about to study whether to move the redistricting process to such a commission.
It’s a move advocated by good-government type groups including Common Cause Indiana, which say the state’s legislative districts need to more compact and more competitive, meaning there’s a better chance that elections are close.
The idea has even gained surprising support among Indiana lawmakers, even Republicans who currently have all the power they need to draw the lines in ways that benefit them. But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has been pushing for an independent commission to take over the job and he advocated this summer’s study to learn more.
“In my experience an independent redistricting has the potential to take the partisanship out of it,” he said. “I’m very interested in seeing whether that has been the experience in the state that has done them.”
About a dozen states give “first and final authority” for legislative redistricting to a group other than the legislature, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
That means lawmakers have no say in how the maps are drawn. Instead the job goes to a non-elected organization.
In a decision last week, the U.S. Supreme Court said a redistricting commission in Arizona is constitutional. In that case, the commission was created by voters through an initiative process. The court said disallowing the commission would “run up against the Constitution’s animating principle that the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government.”
But that raises a question: In a state like Indiana, without a ballot initiative process, would an independent commission actually honor the idea that the “the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government?”
After all, the elected legislature would be turning authority over to an unelected body.
At least when lawmakers are in charge, the voters have – at least in theory – the power to get rid of them if they do a bad job.
It’s just something to think about. And advocates for a commission would rightly point out that it’s tough to vote out a legislator whose district has been gerrymandered to the point that it’s not competitive.
Regardless, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision didn’t clear all the hurdles Indiana lawmakers face in creating a commission in the state.
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 gives the power for drawing maps to lawmakers, not an independent commission.
That could mean a constitutional amendment is necessary. It could mean an independent commission would draw maps that the General Assembly would approve.
These are all the issues the study group this summer needs to tackle. But the debate shouldn’t be just about the logistics. It needs to be about the larger questions as well.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.