Commentary: Take it from Utah: It’s time to end gerrymandering

By Mary Beth Schneider
 
As people were voting for their lawmakers on Nov. 6, they also sent a message that politicians shouldn’t be able to predetermine election outcomes.
 
In Michigan, Missouri, Colorado and Utah, voters passed ballot initiatives to try to end partisan gerrymandering. In the first three of those states, the measures were overwhelmingly approved. In Utah, it squeaked by.

Mary Beth Schneider

 
When you have red states like Missouri and Utah joining a swing state like Michigan and an increasingly blue state like Colorado then you know this isn’t just about one party pushing a reform. It’s about people wanting a government that better reflects and represents them. Politicians shouldn’t pick their voters; voters should pick their politicians.
 
In Indiana, though, the drawing of legislative district maps for both Congress and the Statehouse remains firmly in the grip of politicians. Right now, Republicans have control in part because this is a Republican-leaning state, but also because the maps they drew in 2011 give them a built-in advantage.
 
In the congressional races, for instance, Democrats won about 46 percent of the votes statewide — yet hold only two of the nine U.S. House races. And in the Indiana House, Democrats got about 45 percent of the votes, but only 33 of 100 seats.
 
Back when Republicans were in the minority in the Indiana House — yes, I’m old enough to remember that — the GOP after every election would point out how they’d won a majority of the votes for state legislative races but a minority of the seats.
 
But while House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has backed an independent commission, the proposal has gone nowhere. The House passed a bill back in 2014, only to see it die in the Senate. Last session, the Senate passed a watered-down bill that established criteria for drawing legislative maps, but the House snubbed it.
 
Sen. John Ruckelshaus, an Indianapolis Republican, said he’s filing the same bill in 2019 seeking an independent commission that he filed in 2018 — and is hoping that unlike last year it will at least get a hearing.
 
At his last town hall meeting, he said, one constituent asked him: “Look, you’re a Republican. Why in God’s name would you do this?”
 
His answer: He was a victim of Democratic gerrymandering when he was in the House minority several years ago. Plus, he added, his district supports it overwhelmingly.
 
Julia Vaughn, who is advocating for redistricting reform as policy director of Common Cause Indiana, is hoping that the outcomes in Michigan, Missouri, Colorado and Utah will show Indiana’s lawmakers that voters want this regardless of party.
 
“Citizens have figured out that gerrymandering really matters and that it is having a very negative impact on democracy,” she said. “Hoosiers are no different than voters in Missouri, Utah, Michigan and Colorado.”
 
Unlike those states, though, all Indiana’s voters can do is try to persuade legislators. There is no ballot initiative here by which members of the public can collect enough signatures to get an issue before the voters. And it’s been ballot initiatives that is the biggest tool to prying power from lawmakers’ cold partisan hands. 
 
Michael Li, senior redistricting counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said that while reform is harder without the pressure of a ballot initiative, there is growing support.
 
Ten years ago, he said, the issue of gerrymandering didn’t move voters. “Now if you poll test it, and you say somebody is against gerrymandering, it makes them more popular. People get it. People feel like something is wrong with the country. So there’s definitely momentum, including in strange places like Louisiana and Georgia.”
 
But is there momentum in Indiana, where changing clocks much less political maps caused legislative trauma?
 
“We realize it’s a very tough road ahead,” Vaughn said. “But if nothing else, we deserve committee hearings and we deserve votes in those committee hearings. We deserve that these proposals should get to the floor and be fully debated. Give us our time on the floor. Give us the ability to activate our supporters because I think we can show that a majority of Hoosiers do think the time has come for redistricting reform.”
 
Mary Beth Schneider is an editor for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.
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