An effort is underway in Indiana to change how the districts that lawmakers represent are drawn, but organizers say redistricting reform won’t happen until voters push their representatives to support it.
About 150 residents and students attended a public forum on redistricting reform on Tuesday at Franklin College.
A former mayor, a law professor and the director of a nonprofit organization that works to hold public officials accountable discussed why redistricting matters to Indiana residents and how they can become involved in making sure the process is conducted fairly.
Redistricting is the process used to determine the districts or areas that lawmakers represent. The process, begun each decade after the Census, has always been managed by the legislature.
That gives the political party in power the opportunity to create districts that benefit themselves and limit the number of positions that the opposing party has a realistic chance at winning, said Julia Vaughn, policy director at Common Cause Indiana, an organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable to their constituents.
Vaughn has been leading an effort to change how redistricting works in Indiana, with a goal of putting the power into the hands of a bipartisan commission, instead of lawmakers.
A proposal to make that change wasn’t approved in this year’s legislative session, but is being revised and will be up for consideration again in 2018.
Other lawmakers, such as State Sen. Greg Walker, a Republican who represents part of Johnson County and is chairman of the Senate election committee, are working on their own proposals for redistricting reform. Walker said he supports redistricting reform, but the process will likely be changed incrementally rather than all at once.
The goal of having a bipartisan committee lead the redistricting process is to avoid gerrymandering, Vaughn said.
Gerrymandering is when districts for the state legislature and Congress are created in a way that the amount of representatives elected from a political party is disproportional to the percent of votes received, a process done by carefully choosing the percentage of voters from each party that go into districts, said Luis Fuentes-Rohwer, a professor at Indiana University law school.
For example, a state with gerrymandered districts could have 60 percent of its officials from one party, when that party received only 40 percent of the total votes, he said.
Gerrymandered districts create non-competitive general election races, forcing candidates to pay more attention to their base on either the far right or the far left, said Paul Helmke, the former mayor of Fort Wayne and a professor at Indiana University.
This leads to both parties having large ideological divides between them, which discourages compromise and bipartisanship and leaves the needs of the people in the center of the political spectrum without representation, he said.
Gerrymandering is done because politicians want to stay in power, Helmke said.
“A lot of time is spent by officials to make sure there isn’t competition for their seats,” he said.
The key to redistricting reform is that politicians must be more afraid of the consequences of not reforming the process than losing power by giving up control of redistricting, Helmke said.
“It won’t happen until you speak up,” he said.
Since redistricting reform was proposed early this year, Vaughn said that she has been hearing from lawmakers who say that their constituents are interested in the topic.
Indiana voters need to continue to contact their representatives, because putting pressure on them is the only way these reforms will happen, she said.
One issue that will strongly influence any redistricting efforts in Indiana and across the U.S. is an upcoming case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the districts in Wisconsin are being challenged as having been unfairly drawn, Fuentes-Rohwer said.
While the Supreme Court has taken previous steps to make districts fair, such as requiring them to have equal numbers of people, the court has avoided addressing gerrymandering mostly because they haven’t had a way to identify districts that have been gerrymandered, he said.
However, in the Wisconsin case, a statistical method of measuring the fairness of state and congressional districts has been proposed, which looks at the number of votes in each district to determine how many seats each party should have won if the districts had been set up fairly, Fuentes-Rohwer said.
If the court rules against Wisconsin, which Fuentes-Rohwer expects will happen, that will leave every other state open to lawsuits, which could encourage Indiana lawmakers to change the redistricting process, Fuentes-Rohwer.